The COVID-19 pandemic is likely to make a major impact on ME/CFS disease. Viral infections have long been suspected to be a trigger of immunological events that may lead to ME/CFS. There are now worrying reports of people with COVID-19 that have symptoms reminiscent of ME/CFS, months after viral clearance.
Talented Atlantic writer Ed Yong recently wrote an article in The Atlantic about “COVID-19 long-haulers,” or the people who have been experiencing months of cyclical, debilitating symptoms after being infected with the virus. Many of these long-haulers were previously young and healthy, but have experienced weeks of fever, delirium, and crushing fatigue following infection. Despite these extreme symptoms, because what they’re experiencing differs from the typical COVID-19 illness profile, they have been told that it’s all in their heads. Online support groups host thousands of people who have been dealing with severe COVID-19 symptoms for at least a month, if not longer.
The only neurological symptom of COVID-19 listed by the CDC is loss of taste and smell, but according to surveys from COVID-19 long-haulers, other neurological symptoms are common. Yong says that, “as many people reported ‘brain fogs’ and concentration challenges as coughs or fevers. Some have experienced hallucinations, delirium, short-term memory loss, or strange vibrating sensations when they touch surfaces.” A recent review article also summarizes the neurological impact of COVID-19. Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale, thinks the most likely think happening is that the virus is gone but the immune system is stuck in an overactive state. This is very similar to what could be going on in people with ME/CFS, and similar to what we have described in our recent preprint manuscript.
Yong describes how the symptoms experienced by COVID-19 long-haulers are very similar to what people with ME/CFS experience. But there is some hope. He says, “if the pandemic creates a large population of people who have symptoms that are similar to those of ME/CFS, it might trigger research into this and other overlooked diseases. Several teams of scientists are already planning studies of COVID-19 patients to see if any become ME/CFS patients—and why.”