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Researchers discover ‘antibody signature’ that may explain why some get long COVID

Team lead hopes findings will help in early identification of patients at increased risk of illness, in turn facilitating research and development of targeted treatments

Technicians carry out a diagnostic test for COVID-19 in a lab at a branch of Leumit Health Care Services in Or Yehuda on January 21, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Technicians carry out a diagnostic test for COVID-19 in a lab at a branch of Leumit Health Care Services in Or Yehuda on January 21, 2022. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

Researchers have discovered an “antibody signature” that can be used to identify patients who have a high risk of developing long COVID, a condition in which debilitating symptoms can persist for many months, The Guardian reported on Tuesday.

Scientists believe that since the coronavirus causes the body to produce a long-lasting immune response that attacks the body instead of the virus, this could explain why some patients continue to have a variety of symptoms long after they are clear of infection.

The syndrome can damage the body, including the brain, blood vessels, and liver — areas that exhibit the symptoms of what has become known as long COVID, including continued illness, fatigue or breathlessness in those who were infected and then recovered from the virus.

Long COVID is believed to affect about 10% of 18- to 49-year-old coronavirus patients, and as many as 20% of those over the age of 70, according to a Yale report published last year.

After analyzing blood from COVID-19 patients, a team from University Hospital in Zurich found that those who continued to experience symptoms on a long-term basis had low levels of specific antibodies compared to those who completely shook off the infection.

When they checked for the presence of those antibodies — along with other factors including age, the COVID-19 symptoms the individuals were experiencing, and other preexisting conditions that could play a role, such as asthma — doctors were able to accurately predict which patients would suffer from long COVID.

Magen David Adom medics and Shaare Zedek hospital team members wearing safety gear as they work in the coronavirus ward of Shaare Zedek hospital in Jerusalem on January 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Overall, we think that our findings and identification of an immunoglobulin signature will help early identification of patients that are at increased risk of developing long COVID, which in turn will facilitate research, understanding, and ultimately targeted treatments for long COVID,” said Onur Boyman, a professor of immunology who led the research, according to The Guardian.

While there is no cure for long COVID, researchers hope the new discovery can help doctors identify those most at risk of suffering from it, and apply preventative treatments.

“This is expected to improve care for long COVID patients as well as motivate high-risk groups, such as asthmatic patients, to get vaccinated and thus prevent long COVID,” said study co-author Dr. Carlo Cervia.

The results of the study were published in the journal Nature Communications.

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