COVID is nothing if not unpredictable. Throughout the course of the past 16 months, we’ve seen how differently the virus can affect patients. Some people never experience any symptoms, others recover within a week or so, and some have long-term effects that last for months after their infection. Of course, the rollout of vaccines has changed the course of the pandemic, and now, researchers are trying to uncover how the virus continues to affect a new subset of people: those who get COVID after vaccination.
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According to WebMD, research has found that about 10 percent of people who contracted the novel coronavirus (before vaccines were rolled out) ended up developing long COVID, the name given to the lingering symptoms that some experience for weeks or months after initial recovery. But much is still unknown about how long COVID may affect those who contract the virus after they’ve been vaccinated, which is known as a breakthrough infection.
Recently, a team of researchers working with Survivor Corps, an organization providing support and resources to people with long COVID, launched a new poll on Facebook targeted at people who got COVID after they’d been vaccinated. The survey was presented in the Survivor Corps Facebook group of about 169,900 members, and nearly 2,000 fully vaccinated participants responded by July 22, the cut-off for the initial report. These preliminary results of the poll, which is still ongoing, were then posted on medRxiv on July 25.
Out of these initial respondents, 44 reported symptomatic cases of COVID after being fully vaccinated with either Pfizer, Moderna, or Johnson & Johnson, and more than half of those with breakthrough infections (24) reported experiencing symptoms of long COVID.
Among the 44 breakthrough COVID patients who responded to the survey, 19 were Pfizer recipients, 12 of whom said their infection led to long COVID; 17 were Moderna recipients, with six reporting their infections resulted in long COVID; and eight got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, six of whom said they subsequently developed long COVID.
Only one respondent said their breakthrough infection led to both long COVID and hospitalization, but lingering symptoms can still be debilitating for patients. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), commonly reported long COVID symptoms include prolonged shortness of breath, fatigue, cough, pain in the chest, stomach, joints, and muscles, headache, heart palpitations, diarrhea, sleep problems, fever, rash, changes in smell or taste, and newfound difficulty concentrating.
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Still, despite the findings, the Survivor Corps researchers say more “rigorous and detailed studies” need to be conducted to determine the risk of long COVID for those fully vaccinated, due to the small sample size and the self-reporting nature of the poll.
“The poll was limited and the respondents highly self-selected, so it is not possible to estimate rates of breakthrough or subsequent risk of long COVID,” the researchers wrote of the survey results. The researchers added that more studies are needed to determine if the risk of long COVID after breakthrough infections is similar to the risk reported from initial infections prior to vaccines becoming available.
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Many experts have already hypothesized that the odds of developing long COVID after vaccination are likely much lower.
“There’s good reason to believe that the more serious your infection is, the greater risk you are of having longer-term sequelae,” David Dowdy, MD, an associate professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told AARP this week. “And since the vaccines are particularly good at preventing infections from getting out of hand when they do occur, there’s strong reason to believe that these vaccines will also be very effective in preventing these sorts of long-term sequelae.”
But much is still unknown. During a July 22 press briefing, White House COVID adviser Anthony Fauci, MD, said that the risk of long COVID after breakthrough infections is the “object of a very intensive study right now.”
“We don’t have enough information right now to give you an accurate number of what that incidence is, but that’s something that is being very actively followed right now,” he confirmed.
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