February 23, 2021

NIH launches new initiative to study “Long COVID”

I write to announce a major new NIH initiative to identify the causes and ultimately the means of prevention and treatment of individuals who have been sickened by COVID-19, but don’t recover fully over a period of a few weeks. Large numbers of patients who have been infected with SARS-CoV-2 continue to experience a constellation of symptoms long past the time that they’ve recovered from the initial stages of COVID-19 illness. Often referred to as “Long COVID”, these symptoms, which can include fatigue, shortness of breath, “brain fog”, sleep disorders, fevers, gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety, and depression, can persist for months and can range from mild to incapacitating. In some cases, new symptoms arise well after the time of infection or evolve over time. In December, NIH held a workshop to summarize what is known about these patients who do not fully recover and identify key gaps in our knowledge about the effects of COVID-19 after the initial stages of infection. In January, I shared the results from the largest global study of these emerging symptoms. While still being defined, these effects can be collectively referred to as Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC). We do not know yet the magnitude of the problem, but given the number of individuals of all ages who have been or will be infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the public health impact could be profound.

In December, Congress provided $1.15 billion in funding over four years for NIH to support research into the prolonged health consequences of SARS-CoV-2 infection. A diverse team of experts from across the agency has worked diligently over the past few weeks to identify the most pressing research questions and the areas of greatest opportunity to address this emerging public health priority. Today we issued the first in a series of Research Opportunity Announcements (ROAs) for the newly formed NIH PASC Initiative. Through this initiative, we aim to learn more about how SARS-CoV-2 may lead to such widespread and lasting symptoms, and to develop ways to treat or prevent these conditions. We believe that the insight we gain from this research will also enhance our knowledge of the basic biology of how humans recover from infection, and improve our understanding of other chronic post-viral syndromes and autoimmune diseases, as well as other diseases with similar symptoms.

Some of the initial underlying questions that this initiative hopes to answer are:

  • What does the spectrum of recovery from SARS-CoV-2 infection look like across the population?
  • How many people continue to have symptoms of COVID-19, or even develop new symptoms, after acute SARS-CoV-2 infection?
  • What is the underlying biological cause of these prolonged symptoms?
  • What makes some people vulnerable to this but not others?
  • Does SARS-CoV-2 infection trigger changes in the body that increase the risk of other conditions, such as chronic heart or brain disorders?

These initial research opportunities will support a combination of ongoing and new research studies and the creation of core resources. We anticipate subsequent calls for other kinds of research, in particular opportunities focused on clinical trials to test strategies for treating long-term symptoms and promoting recovery from infection.

Research Studies: A SARS-CoV-2 Recovery Cohort—the central program of this initiative—will leverage ongoing COVID-19 studies, long-term cohort studies established well before the pandemic began, and new studies of people with Long COVID. These studies aim to characterize the long-term effects of infection in a diverse set of people and the trajectory of symptoms over time. The initiative will support a multidisciplinary consortium of investigators who collaborate and coordinate across studies. The initiative also will support two complementary studies: 1) large data studies from resources such as electronic health records and health systems databases that will be critical to understand how many people are affected and what factors contribute to recovery; 2) studies of biological specimens to understand injury to the brain and other organs.

Core Resources: A clinical science core, data resource core, and biorepository core will provide overall consortium coordination, clinical expertise in post-acute COVID symptoms, and facilitate the use of standardized data and biological specimens collected from the consortium studies by consented volunteers.

Our hearts go out to individuals and families who have not only gone through the difficult experience of acute COVID-19, but now find themselves still struggling with lingering and debilitating symptoms. Throughout this pandemic, we have witnessed the resilience of our patient, medical, and scientific communities as they have come together in extraordinary ways. NIH deeply appreciates the contributions of patients who have not fully recovered from SARS-CoV-2 infection and who have offered their experiences and insights to lead us to this point, including those with other post-viral infections. Through the PASC Initiative, we now ask the patient, medical, and scientific communities to come together to help us understand the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection, and how we may be able to prevent and treat these effects moving forward.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D.
Director, National Institutes of Health