The World Health Organization (WHO) has alerted the world that coronavirus may have long-term health problems.
“When we say that the vast majority of people have mild illness and are recovering, that’s true, but what we can’t say at the moment is what the potential long-term impact of having that infection is,” said Mike Ryan, Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergency Program, at a press conference.
Ryan cited recent work from Germany that posed questions about the long-term effects that the disease may have on the cardiovascular health of recovering patients. He stressed that even people who have a mild case of the virus could be at risk of having long-term health problems.
The first research examined the hearts of 100 men with an average age of 49 who had recovered from COVID-19 and compared them to similar photos of individuals who were not diagnosed with the virus. They observed that 78 patients had anatomical improvements in their hearts, an average of more than 2 months after definite disease diagnosis, and 60 had signs of inflammation.
“When a body responds to a virus or other health issue, it creates an inflammatory response. If the reaction lasts a long time, it may cause long-term harm that leads to heart disease and exacerbate other heart problems that will evolve later in life,” Ryan said.
Existing clinical literature on COVID-19 events in the U.S. is sparse. But an extensive report from China, published at the end of February, described some 44,000 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19. Although most had mild symptoms of the disease, almost 20% were critically ill with a lung injury that made it difficult to breathe. For the chronically ill, the diagnosed cardiomyopathies and severe arrhythmias allow for further studies to study the effects and long-term health issues that many patients will face.
To help us describe how COVID-19 affects more than just the lungs, researchers will also collect details on patient cardiac activity and critical laboratory testing for indicators of inflammation, coagulation, circulation, liver and kidney damage and immunity. Past studies have found that patients with adverse outcomes, especially the elderly and most seriously ill, are more likely to have unpredictable results in these regions, as well as a higher risk of death.
Study author Valentina Puntmann told STAT that the high percentage of patients with on-going cardiac abnormalities means that “the heart is involved in the majority of patients, even if Covid-19’s disease does not trigger classic cardiac symptoms, like anginal chest pain.”
The second research examined the corpses of 39 individuals who died of COVID-19 and detected the virus in the bodies of 24 patients. Both reports were published in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Cardiology on Monday.
Ryan urged people not to take the risk “that you can’t calculate,” adding that “those risks cannot be quantified properly right now.”
It is a question of the front and centre not only for physicians caring for patients but also for researchers, many of whom are working hard to understand the long-term effects of SARS-CoV-2—a virus that causes coronavirus disease in 2019 (COVID-19)—even as they try to develop effective therapies to overcome it.