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For about 1 million people across the U.K., COVID-19 didn’t just go away. Instead it lingered, causing exhaustion, shortness of breath, cognitive issues and other health problems.

With England preparing to lift virtually all restrictions even as infections are surging again, scientists are concerned that the numbers impacted by what has become known as “long COVID” will climb much higher.

In a bid to understand more, the U.K.’s National Institute for Health Research on Sunday announced about £20 million ($27.5 million) in funding for 15 studies analyzing the causes of long COVID and its physical and mental health impacts.

Britain’s rapid immunization campaign has fully vaccinated 53.2% of the U.K. population, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker, prompting the government to declare that the link between infections and hospitalizations has been “weakened.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson says people must learn to live with the coronavirus.

But millions still remain vulnerable, and those who have endured symptoms for weeks, months — or more than a year — say the long COVID threat is being overlooked as policymakers focus on headline figures of cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

As the more contagious delta variant spreads, other countries attempting to manage the next phase of their pandemic will likely find themselves facing a similar dilemma.

“When the government talks about opening up, there have been no references to long Covid,” said Christina Barratt, a 51-year-old former sales manager in Manchester who first experienced COVID-19 symptoms in late March 2020.

Prioritizing vaccination for vulnerable older age groups means a lower percentage of young Britons have had their shots in time for the ending of curbs. That concerns Barratt. “Young people feel invincible but this can really happen to anyone,” she said.

Barratt said she was bedridden for months after contracting COVID-19, at times so weak she couldn’t roll over or move. Sometimes, she said, it felt like she was comatose even though she was awake. During this time Barratt lost her job and has since faced new symptoms, including numbness and chronic fatigue.

For Barratt, one of the biggest difficulties is communicating her plight to others, including doctors and even family and friends. “The illness becomes part of who you are,” she said.

While the government has defended its plan, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said cases could reach as high as 100,000 per day and England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty warned that there could be an increase in long COVID, especially in younger people. The U.K. on Friday held out the possibility of restoring some restrictions later in the year.

Westminster Bridge in London on July 4 | REUTERS
Westminster Bridge in London on July 4 | REUTERS

Long-term fears

The U.K. strategy has been sharply criticized. More than 120 scientists co-signed a letter in the Lancet medical journal on July 7, warning that rising infections could leave hundreds of thousands of people with illness and disability “for decades to come.” International experts joined their British counterparts online to sound a further warning on July 16.

An estimated 962,000 people, or 1.5% of the population, have experienced self-reported long COVID symptoms in the U.K., according to data from the Office for National Statistics published earlier this month. More than a third of those said they’ve suffered for more than a year.

Separately, an Imperial College London study published in June found that 38% of people who caught the virus reported one or more symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks. Researchers estimated that, overall, more than 2 million adults in England may have had long COVID so far.

The funding announced on Sunday will help explore the broad range of long COVID symptoms, studying everything from the oxygen absorbed by the lungs to brain function to the level of care and support that should be provided.

The prevalence of the condition known as “brain fog” is one of dozens of symptoms that experts say justify calls for a national screening program. Dennis Chan, a principal research fellow at University College London, pointed to the way viruses like SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, affect the brain.

“We have never seen anything like this in terms of the sheer scale,” Chan said in a briefing with reporters.

Meanwhile, new cases of long COVID seem to be on the rise. The ZOE Covid Study estimates there are currently 500 new cases of long COVID a day in the U.K. among unvaccinated people.

“Vaccines have massively reduced severe infections and post-vaccination COVID is a much milder disease for most people,” Tim Spector, lead scientist on the study and a professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London said. “The main concern is now the risk of long COVID.”

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