Scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have assessed more than 200 people infected with the novel coronavirus and found that there was significant evidence of heart, lung, liver and pancreas impairment four months post-COVID-19 in young individuals without risk factors or pre-existing disease.
The yet-to-be peer-reviewed study, published in the preprint repository medRxiv, assessed 201 individuals enrolled at two UK sites — Perspectum, Oxford and Mayo Clinic Healthcare, London — following infection with the novel coronavirus between April and September 2020.
According to the researchers, including Sandeep Kapur from Mayo Clinic Healthcare, the average age of the participants was 44, and they completed the assessments 105-160 days after initial symptoms.
They said the prevalence of pre-existing conditions such as obesity and hypertension was low among the participants, and only 18 per cent of the individuals had been hospitalised with COVID-19.
Nearly four months after the initial symptoms, the study found that the participants still reported fatigue, muscle aches, breathlessness, and headaches.
In this low-risk population with persisting “long COVID” symptoms, almost 70 per cent of the individuals have impairment in one or more organs, four months after initial symptoms of the coronavirus infection, the researchers said.
“In this young cohort with low prevalence of comorbidities, the extent of symptom burden and organ impairment is concerning,” the scientists noted in the study.
Months after the initial symptoms were reported, the participants still experienced ongoing cardiorespiratory (92 per cent) and gastrointestinal (73 per cent) symptoms, and 42 per cent of individuals had ten or more symptoms, they said.
According to the researchers, there was evidence of mild organ impairment in heart (32 per cent), lungs (33 per cent), kidneys (12 per cent), 63 liver (10 per cent), pancreas (17 per cent), and spleen (6 per cent).
“Single and multi-organ impairment was observed, and was significantly associated with risk of prior COVID-19 hospitalisation,” the scientists wrote in the study.
Citing the limitations of the study, the researchers said the cause-effect relationship between organ impairment and infection could not be deduced, “but may be addressed by longitudinal follow-up of individuals with organ impairment.”
They added that the study population was limited by ethnicity despite disproportionate impact of COVID-19 in non-white individuals.
However, the researchers believe the findings have implications not only for the burden of long COVID but also for public health approaches which have assumed low risk in young people with no comorbidities.
“There is urgent need for further multi-organ assessment, including blood and imaging analysis in the COVID-19 context, as well as linkage with primary and secondary care data, so that long COVID can be properly defined,” the researchers noted in the study.