Long COVID is no different to the flu, health study reports

The term 'long COVID' causes unnecessary fear, says Queensland's Chief Health Officer.

The term 'long COVID' causes unnecessary fear, says Queensland's Chief Health Officer. Photo: Getty

In recent months, doctor groups have called for more resources to deal with long COVID patients and their complex issues.

This week, an observational study from Queensland Health found that long COVID’s symptoms and functional impairments don’t differ from lingering impairments caused by other illnesses like the flu.

It also found that the number of patients with lingering symptoms was similar between people with COVID and those with other respiratory illnesses.

In other words, a persistent case of COVID-19, lasting up to a year or more, behaves the same as a persistent dose of seasonal flu.

Why does it affect so many?

As we reported in 2022, there’s an idea (still in train) that people who complain of suffering from long COVID are actually struggling with psychological issues.

That persistent scepticism about long COVID was partly buoyed because researchers were playing catch-up with developing a precise diagnosis for this complex condition – which in turn would allow an accurate count of sufferers.

The Queensland Health study researchers are at pains to agree that long COVID is a thing.

But they argue that – in the highly vaccinated population of Queensland exposed to the Omicron variant – “long COVID’s impact on the health system is likely to stem from the sheer number of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 within a short period of time, rather than the severity of long COVID symptoms or functional impairment”.

Research not exactly new

An earlier, smaller iteration of the study was flagged a year ago, and accepted by the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID 2023), held in Copenhagen.

The earlier study has since been published in the journal BMJ Public Health.

The new study is being presented this week at ECCMID 2024 in Barcelona.

This time, it’s getting more attention from the media. Not because of the survey findings, but because Dr John Gerrard, Queensland’s Chief Health Officer, is calling for the term ‘long COVID’ to be scrapped.

Gerard, who led the research, said the term ‘long COVID’ creates “unnecessary fear” – and is “probably harmful”. Neither of these opinions is backed by hard evidence.

Gerrard said the description wrongly implied long-term, post-COVID viral symptoms were “somehow unique and exceptional” to other viral infections. His research, he said, suggested they were indistinguishable.

So what do we call it instead? The Voldemort Virus? The illness that we dare not say its name?

What experts say

Professor Philip Britton is a paediatric infectious diseases physician from the University of Sydney, and a member of the Long Covid Australia Collaboration.

Via the Science Media Exchange (Scimex), he said that the Queensland study was reassuring because it demonstrated that “most people will recover from COVID without long-term effects”.

It also suggested that “with vaccination and viral evolution, the number of people who experience long COVID will likely reduce with time”.

However, he described the conclusion that it is “time to stop using terms like ‘long COVID’ is overstated and potentially unhelpful”.

Where the study falls short

Professor Jeremy Nicholson is Professor of Medicine and Director of the Australian National Phenome Centre at Murdoch University. He said, via a release from Scimex):

“A significant number of COVID-19 patients transition to a long-term or persistent form of the disease even after the active virus has departed from the body. This condition has been colloquially termed long COVID.

“The question is: Is long COVID unique, worthy of its own name, or is it just another post viral syndrome?”

He said this question “cannot be simply answered in this work”.

The study is observational, based on reported symptoms with no physiological or detailed functional follow-up data.

“Without laboratory patho-physiological assessment of individual patients, it is impossible to say that this is indistinguishable from flu-related or any other post-viral syndrome,” he said.

Help for patients scaled back

In December, five of 23 long COVID clinics were closed or scaled back.

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) responded by saying more multidisciplinary clinics were “needed to help deal with the growing burden of long COVID”.

AMA vice-president Dr Danielle McMullen, via an email, told The New Daily: “While there might be some debate about the name of ‘long Covid’, the AMA is focused on advocating for more resources for GPs and the wider health system to help patients manage their symptoms.”

To read more about the Queensland Health study, and its limitations, see here.

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