Long COVID: Understanding and combatting an increasing burden

As we mark Long COVID-19 Awareness Day on March 15, it’s crucial to reflect on the journey we have embarked on since the onset of COVID-19. Over the last four years, we have seen both the devastating impact of this virus and the remarkable achievements of science in combating it. Yet, while we have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus continues to challenge us with new emerging variants and the increasingly recognized impact of Long COVID.

Long COVID, or Post-Acute Sequelae SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC), is estimated to affect millions globally. Nearly 36 million Europeans – or 1 in 30 – may have experienced long COVID in the first three years of the COVID-19 pandemic.[1] Long COVID can result in more than 200 symptoms across ten organ systems, with studies showing that the long-lasting neurological and respiratory impacts of Long COVID are significant, including aging the brain and damaging the lungs. It can also create a higher burden of disability than either heart disease or cancer.[2],[3]

The burden of Long COVID cannot be overstated. It affects not just the individuals but also their families, communities, and economies. Studies show that around 10–20% of people infected by SARS-CoV-2 may go on to develop symptoms that can be diagnosed as long COVID[4], which may impact people’s ability to work, engage in social activities, or lead everyday lives. The economic impact is staggering, with billions lost in productivity and increased healthcare costs.[5] But beyond the numbers lies the human cost: the emotional and psychological toll on individuals facing an uncertain recovery path.

Vaccination continues to play a crucial role in managing COVID-19, reducing the risk of severe illness, hospitalization, and death.[6] Additionally, current evidence suggests that vaccination may reduce the risk of experiencing long COVID and may help alleviate the severity of the disease in cases where infection occurs in breakthrough cases.[7]

Increasing advocacy and understanding of Long COVID is key. Awareness campaigns, patient groups, and educational initiatives play a crucial role in highlighting the challenges faced by people affected by Long COVID. These efforts also mobilize resources for research and support services, ensuring those affected are not forgotten. As a global community, we must advocate for comprehensive care models that address the physical, mental, and social aspects of Long COVID recovery.

In conclusion, a concerted effort is required to acknowledge the scale of the challenge posed by long COVID. On this Long COVID-19 Awareness Day, let us renew our commitment to understanding, and ultimately overcoming Long COVID.

Chantal Friebertshaeuser

Senior Vice President & GM, Europe, Middle East, Australia, and Canada (EMEAC) at Moderna

[1] Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Long COVID is a serious health concern in Europe. https://www.healthdata.org/news-events/insights-blog/acting-data/long-covid-serious-health-concern-europe. Last accessed – 27 February 2024.

[2] Davis, H.E., McCorkell, L., Vogel, J.M. et al. Long COVID: major findings, mechanisms and recommendations. Nat Rev Microbiol 21, 133–146 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41579-022-00846-2.

[3] Li, J., Zhou, Y., Ma, J. et al. The long-term health outcomes, pathophysiological mechanisms and multidisciplinary management of long COVID. Sig Transduct Target Ther 8, 416 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41392-023-01640-z.

[4] World Health Organization. Post COVID-19 condition (Long COVID). https://www.who.int/europe/news-room/fact-sheets/item/post-covid-19-condition. Last accessed 27 February 2024.

[5] European Commission. Long COVID: A Tentative Assessment of Its Impact on Labour Market Participation & Potential Economic Effects in the EU. Economic Brief 077. https://economy-finance.ec.europa.eu/document/download/36713cbb-6cbf-4ddb-8a15-55a4f456e2cb_en?filename=eb077_en.pdf.

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. COVID-19 Vaccine Effectiveness. https://www.cdc.gov/respiratory-viruses/whats-new/covid-19-vaccine-effectiveness.html#:~:text=Vaccination%20remains%20the%20best%20protection,last%20for%20an%20extended%20duration. Last accessed 27 February 2024.

[7] Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness against post-covid-19 condition among 589 722 individuals in Sweden: population based cohort study  BMJ  2024; 384 :q434 doi:10.1136/bmj.q434.