Long-Covid could be caused by deformed blood cells, study finds

Is this what’s causing long Covid? Virus can stop oxygen flowing around the body properly for MONTHS, triggering breathing issues, fatigue and headaches

  • Covid can cause changes to ‘size and stiffness’ of blood cells, scientists find
  • This could be linked to long-Covid symptoms like breathing difficulties
  • The changes could also explain higher blood clot risk in Covid patients

Changes to blood cells caused by the coronavirus may explain why so many patients suffer from long Covid, researchers say.

German researchers have found that the virus alters the size and stiffness of red and white blood cells, making it harder to get oxygen and nutrients around the body. 

Their small study of 55 people found that these changes can last for several months, which may explain why many Covid patients become ‘long haulers’. 

They believe the disruption to oxygen flow is the root of the common symptoms which plague long Covid patients – breathing issues, tiredness and headaches. 

But these physical alterations to the blood cells may also explain why some very sick Covid patients develop blood clots or suffer organ damage.

Scientists from the Max Planck Center for Physics and Medicine in Germany, who made the finding, analysed blood samples of current and former Covid patients and compared them to healthy volunteers.  

Long Covid is an umbrella term encompassing symptoms that persist for more than a month and is poorly understood. 

But official figures suggest hundreds of thousands of people across the UK have been suffering from the condition.

Fatigue was the most common symptom, affecting an estimated 535,000 people, followed by shortness of breath striking 397,000 and muscle ache hitting 309,000, according to the Office for National Statistics

The researchers found that blood cells were different sizes and shapes in people who were healthy (left), previously had the virus (middle) and had currently had the virus and were hospitalised (right). The graphs show how deformation increased slightly for people who had the virus, while those currently infected had cells that were much more deformed 

The graph on the left estimates what blood cells look like in health (grey), recovered (green) and currently infected (yellow) patients 

The researchers found volunteers who had Covid suffered poorer blood circulation, limited oxygen transport and blood clots. 

‘These are all phenomena in which the blood cells and their physical properties play a key role,’ they said in their report, which was published last month in Biophysical Journal. 

Most coronavirus patients will recover within a fortnight, suffering a fever, cough and losing their sense of smell or taste for several days.

However, evidence is beginning to show that the tell-tale symptoms of the virus can persist for weeks on end in ‘long haulers’ — the term for patients plagued by lasting complications.

Data from the Covid Symptom Study app, by King’s College London and health company Zoe, suggests one in ten people may still have symptoms after three weeks, and some may suffer for months.

Long term symptoms include:

  • Chronic tiredness
  • Breathlessness 
  • Raised heart rate
  • Delusions
  • Strokes
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of taste/smell
  • Kidney disease 
  • Mobility issues
  • Headaches
  • Muscle pains
  • Fevers 

For those with more severe disease, Italian researchers who tracked 143 people who had been hospitalised with the disease found almost 90 per cent still had symptoms including fatigue two months after first falling unwell.

The most common complaints were fatigue, a shortness of breath and joint pain – all of which were reported during their battle with the illness.  

Source: NHS

The scientists examined over four million blood cells from 17 patients acutely ill with Covid aged between 41 and 87, from 14 people aged 27 to 76 who recovered and from 24 healthy people aged 26 to 81 as a comparison group. 

They measured the shape of red and white blood cells using a microscopic camera and analysed the data on a computer. 

Red and white blood cells – vital for carrying oxygen and nutrients around the body – were found to be drastically different sizes and shapes in Covid patients. 

The researchers believe this can make blood clumpy and therefore harder to get oxygen around the body.   

White blood cells are part of the immune system and help your body fight infections, while red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to all the cells in your body. 

Additionally, they found that the size and form of white blood cells in patients with the virus were very different from those of healthy people. 

This indicates damage to these cells and could explain the increased risk in Covid patients of blood clots and pulmonary embolisms, which is when a blood vessel in the lung is blocked by a blood clot. 

The scientists believe that the persisting changes of blood cells could contribute to the long-term impairment of circulation and oxygen delivery linked with the virus.    

Before the study, physical changes of blood cells were not considered as playing a role in Covid related vascular occlusion and organ damage, the scientists said.

Scientists had not yet figured out what was to blame, with the condition not being fully understood.

Last month, the Government provided scientists with £50million to study the condition.

The NHS has opened 80 long-Covid assessment clinics across England to improve diagnosis and patient care. 

A separate study by the Office for National Statistics found that nearly one million people in the UK were suffering from long-Covid in May.  

The number of people struggling with persistent symptoms that last a year jumped is now 385,000, according to the ONS.

Their data showed that around two-thirds of those with long Covid said it restricted their ability to carry out day-to-day activities.

The ONS’ results follow on from findings from Imperial College London, which were published last week, that a third of the 500,000 patients they studied reported at least one lingering Covid symptom 12 weeks after the initial illness. 

The most commonly reported symptoms included tiredness, shortness of breath, muscle aches and difficulty breathing.

Broadening their results to the wider population, the researchers estimated that two million people – or one in 30 – will have suffered from long Covid months after clearing the disease. 

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