New research from the largest studies of COVID-19 shows that over 2 million people may have had long COVID.
The findings from the REACT-2 studies show that over a third of people in England who have had COVID-19 reported symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks – amounting to 5.8% of the whole study population, and with 2% reporting severe symptoms.
The research, based on self-reported data from 508,707 adults aged 18 and above who took part in REACT-2 rounds three to five carried out between September 2020 and February 2021, suggests a prevalence of persistent symptoms, known as long COVID, increases with age, with a 3.5% increase in likelihood in each decade of life.
The impact of long COVID
The findings also show that the prevalence of long COVID is higher among women, people who are overweight or obese, who smoke, live in deprived areas, or had been admitted to hospital. Persistent COVID-19 symptoms were lower in people of Asian ethnicity.
Health and Social Care Secretary, Matt Hancock said: “Long COVID can have a lasting and debilitating impact on the lives of those affected. Studies like this help us to rapidly build our understanding of the impact of the condition and we are using these findings and other new research to develop support and treatments.
“We are learning more about long COVID all the time and have made £50 million of research funding available to support innovative projects, with clinics established across the country to help improve the treatment available.”
People with persistent symptoms at 12 weeks fell into two broad groups, with the first having the most common symptom of tiredness and muscle aches, and the second showing common symptoms of shortness of breath affecting normal activities, tightness in chest, and chest pain, with more people reporting that they had severe symptoms.
To help understand the long-term effects of COVID-19, the government is providing scientists with £50m of research funding through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to help ensure the best treatments are available.
For those experiencing the long-term effects of COVID-19, the NHS has opened over 80 long COVID assessment services across England and last week the NHS published a £100m plan to expand support, including £30m to help GPs improve diagnosis and care for patients with long COVID.
Professor Paul Elliott, Director of the REACT programme at Imperial, said: “Our findings do paint a concerning picture of the longer-term health consequences of COVID-19, which need to be accounted for in policy and planning.
“Long COVID is still poorly understood but we hope through our research that we can contribute to better identification and management of this condition, which our data and others’ suggest may ultimately affect millions of people in the UK alone.”