The following is a transcript of an interview with Dr. Walter Koroshetz, co-chair of the National Institutes of Health’s long COVID initiative, airing Sunday, June 5, 2022, on “Face the Nation.”
MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to Dr. Walter Koroshetz, director of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke at the National Institutes of Health. He’s also the co-chair of the NIH’s long COVID initiative, and joins us from the NIH campus in Bethesda. COVID Survivors often suffer some kind of symptom for weeks, if not months afterwards. How do we know that this is attributable to COVID and not caused by something else?
DR. WALTER KOROSHETZ: The vast numbers of people who are affected and the fact that the symptoms occurred with the infection and in many cases persist after the infection. It’s that temporal relationship that really goes to causality. There are- there are some unusual features, though. Some people get better and then they develop the symptoms back again. They are, you know, a little less clear.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And what are the symptoms? Because I’ve read such a broad array from brain fog to people having difficulty getting lung capacity back. Senator Tim Kaine talked about feeling like he had Alka-Seltzer bubbles on his skin. What is a symptom of long COVID?
DR. WALTER KOROSHETZ: The great difficulty is the fact that the heterogeneity of the symptoms is quite vast. But I think there are some characteristics that make it very unusual. People develop usually more than one symptom, it’s usually a cluster of symptoms. And they are falling into certain categories. So there are neurologic troubles, like you mentioned, trouble concentrating, sleeping, sometimes peripheral nerve trouble, that sense of the bubbling on your skin. Some people have pulmonary difficulties with continued sense of shortness of breath and a cough. Some people have cardiovascular trouble, a lot of trouble with exercise intolerance. Fatigue is just pretty much with most of the people have trouble. There’s digestive tract trouble as well. And people tend to have, you know, a couple here and a couple there, but they are all seemingly tied to having had their COVID infection.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So the NIH RECOVER study was launched in February 2021. You’ve got about a billion dollars or more funding the research you are doing. What have you found in that study and when will your results be made public?
DR. WALTER KOROSHETZ: We have upwards around four thousand people already enrolled, which makes it the largest in-person study of the post-COVID situation. And right now, we’re collecting data on the different symptoms. We want to understand the underlying biology that’s causing this trouble. This is not a new problem exactly, because there are other infections in the past that have led to similar symptom clusters in people after infection. We’ve never been able to figure that out. This is our chance, I think, to delve deep and to try and understand what is going on in the biologic recovery in the people who don’t make a good recovery.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So at this point, I mean, some of the studies that have been done suggest that 60% of long COVID patients are female, that neurological symptoms can persist for about 15 months or more. The CDC says COVID survivors have twice the risk for developing pulmonary embolism or respiratory conditions, one in five has a condition that could be due to COVID. Are all of those things consistent with what you are seeing right now?DR. WALTER KOROSHETZ: I- I think so. This is a significant problem for the country going forward. And what we don’t know is how long it will last. We don’t know what the long term effects, you know, a decade now, from what has COVID has done to our- our health in the country. It looks as though right now there’s also an increased chance of developing diabetes after COVID. We don’t know about heart disease, dementia, all the other diseases that naturally occur either. But- but that’s kind of what we have to get at the bottom of.
MARGARET BRENNAN: How is it that we are two years or more into this pandemic and we know so little? And do we at least know that there are treatments for long COVID?
DR. WALTER KOROSHETZ: We don’t have like a magic bullet or cure for the- for long COVID, because we don’t understand what’s driving it biologically. And so to get that, you know, holy grail, we need to understand what is wrong in the body that’s causing these symptoms, clusters of symptoms, in people. For the other infections that have occurred in the past, we’ve never been able to figure that out. Those people with post-infectious mononucleosis, people with post-Lyme, they’ve been suffering the same things. There’s a condition called Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, that looks almost identical to what we’re seeing. And these have existed for decades, we’ve never been able to figure them out. And yet people should have hope, because from what we’ve seen so far, people after COVID, even months after, still are getting better. So it’s kind of targeting the symptoms and targeting the underlying biology, the two main avenues we’re going after.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And for someone who’s listening to you right now and they think they might have long COVID, what would you advise them to do when they see their doctor?
DR. WALTER KOROSHETZ: Just being forthright with your physician and telling him what your problems are is the first step and not being afraid of it. The knowledge about this condition is spreading like wildfire across the country, so it’s not a brand new thing anymore. It’s called the post-COVID condition. So it’s actually- it’s actually getting out into the general medical practice now.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Doctor, thank you for your research. We will track it, and we know the effects of this pandemic will be with us for some time in many different ways.
DR. WALTER KOROSHETZ: Thank you, MARGARET. Yes.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We will be right back.