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Can COVID Reactivate Latent Viruses in Long COVID Patients?

Can COVID-19 Reactivate Dormant Viruses in the Body?

There is a lot of mystery surrounding long COVID. Because the SARS-CoV-2 virus is still new to medical and scientific communities, little is known about the chronic post-viral condition caused by COVID-19.

However, what we know for certain is that long COVID is affecting individuals en masse, as 1 in 6 Americans is believed to suffer from long COVID symptoms. Moreover, approximately 4 million U.S. adults have been forced to leave their jobs due to the debilitating symptoms of long COVID.

While the exact causes of long COVID and other post-viral conditions have yet to be established, recent research suggests a new possibility: that long COVID may be reactivating latent viruses in the bodies of long COVID patients.

Can the SARS-CoV-2 virus reactive pathogens that were previously dormant in affected individuals? Studies show this might be true, although more research is required to know for sure.

Long COVID & Post-Viral Conditions

The long COVID phenomenon has impacted individuals who suffered both mild and moderate infections. Even asymptomatic COVID cases have been known to cause chronic long COVID symptoms in affected Americans.

Despite its novelty, it’s worth noting that long COVID isn’t the first of its kind. Post-viral conditions have existed long before the coronavirus pandemic. Similarities have been observed between long COVID symptoms and other post-viral conditions, including myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Like long COVID, ME/CFS can cause the following symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Lightheadedness
  • Unrefreshing sleep

Studies have led some experts to hypothesize that COVID can result in suppression of the immune system, thus allowing latent viruses to be reactivated after lying dormant in the body. As Dr. Anthony Fauci stated in 2020, long COVID “very well might be a post-viral syndrome associated with COVID-19.”

The Role of Dormant Viruses in Long COVID Treatments

While medical professionals haven’t ruled out the possibility that COVID-19 can reactive previously dormant viruses in the body, the theory lacks enough certainty to influence long COVID treatments at this time.

Dr. Alba Miranda Azola, co-director of the long COVID clinic at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, reports that the hypothesis hasn't affected the way they treat long COVID patients, as there isn't enough evidence to do so at this time.

She adds that physicians who have prescribed treatments in accordance with the latent virus theory didn’t see significant improvements in patients. At the moment, there is no standard practice to test for and treat latent viruses in those affected by long COVID.

The persisting uncertainties surrounding long COVID have dissuaded many medical professionals from routinely testing for latent viruses, as the majority of patients respond well to treatment regardless of being tested. In most instances, physicians only resort to testing if a patient doesn’t respond well to the current treatment, as administering antivirals or antibiotics to combat viral reactivation can lead to unwanted side effects.

However, this doesn’t mean that the possibility of latent viruses is unimportant or undocumented. Dr. Panagis Galiasatos of John Hopkins’ pulmonary and critical care division believes there is a strong possibility that COVID weakened the immune systems in many people, and suspects the resulting immunodeficiency can allow latent viruses to reemerge.

Uncertainties of long COVID Diagnosis & Treatment

According to experts in the medical community, because we still know very little about long COVID and ME/CFS, the possibility of SARS-CoV-2 reactivating dormant viruses is of limited importance at the moment. Even if a latent virus is identified through testing, there isn’t a specific drug to treat the patient, making dormant pathogens a moot point in most cases.

In the future, however, the theory may garner more attention if researchers determine that these post-viral chronic conditions (such as long COVID and ME/CFS) are, in fact, caused by residual viruses. If this occurs, the medical community will likely work to discover a way to eradicate them.

Patients with Multiple Post-Viral Conditions

Patients diagnosed with a post-viral condition (such as ME/CFS) prior to developing long COVID have reported worsening chronic fatigue symptoms. Despite this unfortunate pattern, the good news is that most of these patients already know what works for them and what doesn’t.

Dr. Azola says that because her patients with ME/CFS and long COVID already have experience managing chronic post-viral symptoms, they are often better equipped to navigate the ups and downs of long COVID symptoms, too. “They’re able to identify […] and implement strategies that have worked for them in the past,” Dr. Azola explains.

COVID in 2023: An Overview

Stanford University is currently recruiting for a study to examine long COVID’s potential effect on latent viruses in the body. The study will evaluate whether or not Paxlovid (an antiviral drug) can effectively alleviate long COVID symptoms by reducing or eradicating viral remnants.

The medical and scientific communities are hopeful that 2023 will lead to an enhanced understanding of SARS-CoV-2 and the ways in which long COVID and other post-viral conditions affect the human body.

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