An employee pulls a syringe and a container with the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine in Schwaz, Austria.
JOHANN GRODER | AFP | Getty Images
Sheri Paulson had trouble getting out of bed months after her Covid-19 diagnosis.
The 53-year-old North Dakota resident and her family fell ill with the disease after attending a wedding in August. Paulson, an endurance athlete who runs a farm outside Fargo, would later suffer from fatigue, brain fog and an elevated heart rate that led doctors to advise her to stop exercising and participate in cardiac rehabilitation.
Only five days after she got her first Pfizer shot in February did she start to feel better.
“Suddenly I didn̵
Some people who have suffered from lingering and often debilitating symptoms months after their first battle with the virus now say they find relief after getting vaccinated, confusing doctors and other health professionals. Survivor Corps, a patient negotiation group for people with so-called long Covid, recently surveyed nearly 900 of its members and found that 41% of them reported a relief from full recovery shortly after receiving the shots.
The World Health Organization estimates that approx. 1 in 10 Covid-19 patients experience persistent ill health 12 weeks after receiving the virus. Researchers at the University of Washington published data in February that found that one-third of patients reported ongoing symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and sleep disorders that lasted as long as nine months.
Symptoms of long Covid, which researchers now call the Post-Acute Sequelae of Covid-19 or PASC, can develop well after the initial infection, and the severity can range from mild to incapacitated, according to public health officials and health experts.
One of the largest global studies published in early January showed that many people suffering from persistent illness after infection are unable to return to full-time work six months later. The study examined more than 3,700 people aged 18 to 80 from 56 countries.
Diana Berrent, who founded Survivor Corps a little over a year ago, suffered for months from the long Covid before most of her symptoms resolved on their own last year. She said some members of the organization were at first very reluctant to be vaccinated. Members feared, Berrent said, that the reported side effects from the shots would make their symptoms worse.
“We really expected the worst” from the vaccines, she told CNBC in a telephone interview. “You could have beaten me over with a feather when I found out some people were starting to get better because it was just so outside of what we expected.”
They are not alone. Facebook and Twitter are filled with stories from people who, to their own surprise, testify that their symptoms relieved or even disappeared after receiving a Covid-19 vaccine.
Not well understood
The cause of the persistent symptoms is still not well understood by immunologists and other health experts.
Most studies have focused on people with a serious or fatal disease, not those who have recovered but still report long-term side effects, the so-called long-distance carriers. The virus is also relatively new – discovered just over a year ago – so there is no long-term data on it.
The National Institutes of Health in February launched an initiative to study long Covid and identify causes and potential treatments for individuals. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said at the time that researchers hope to understand the underlying biological cause of the long-term symptoms.
Doctors also do not know why some patients with long Covid say they feel better after being vaccinated. Finding it out, experts say, could provide new insights into what lies behind the persistent symptoms as well as potential new treatments to combat it.
Sheri Paulson with her dog Jazzy in North Dakota.
Greetings: Sheri Paulson
The viral reservoir
One theory, according to Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, is that the vaccines help eliminate the so-called “viral reservoir,” where the virus can still linger in the body and cause chronic symptoms. The robust immune response induced by the vaccines can help clear up any remaining viruses and eliminate symptoms, said the scientist studying Long Covid.
“It’s probably the most straightforward way” the vaccines could help people, “she told CNBC in a telephone interview. “If so, people will be healed for the long Covid, and that will be wonderful news.”
Iwasaki also believed that Covid could cause an autoimmune disease in which immune cells mistakenly damage the body. If so, the vaccines may provide “temporary relief” from symptoms, and patients may eventually have to return for another dose, she said.
There are no long-term data on how people feel after the vaccine, she said. “But I suppose that if the other [hypothesis] is true, then it will not be a lasting relief. “
Darren Brown, a 37-year-old UK-based physiotherapist, said his symptoms returned a few weeks after receiving his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Brown suffered from fatigue, restless sleep and impaired coordination for several months. He said his long Covid symptoms had completely lifted about three weeks after he got his first shot. But a few days before his second dose, he felt his symptoms begin to return.
“I started to notice that I was getting more tired again,” he said. “The level that I thought I was capable of pushing myself, the threshold, it felt like it had been reduced and I had nothing in me after returning to work. I just had to go to bed after a day at work. “
He is feeling better since his second dose, but said he is worried that his symptoms may return again.
“I’m really worried that this might not last long,” he said. “But I’m also really overwhelmed by the excitement of it being lifted for now.”
Paulson, the farmer in North Dakota, said she still has some symptoms, but fatigue and brain fog are gone since she got her second shot on March 18th. She added that she is grateful to be doing well, especially as many others died of the disease. .
“There are always things that put life in perspective for you and kind of put you back on your heels a little bit,” said Paulson, who also works for a Massachusetts-based biotech company.
While reports of relief from long-term Covid symptoms could be good news, they are still only anecdotal, Drs. Paul Offit, a voting member of the FDA’s advisory committee on vaccines and related biological products.
There still needs to be a formal attempt to determine if the vaccines actually help, he said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious specialist at the University of Toronto, reiterated Offit’s remarks, saying he is skeptical but “open-minded.”
“This is an answerable question, and I hope we have decent data that can confirm or deny this,” Bogoch said. “Otherwise it’s just a bunch of collective anecdotes”
Iwasaki told CNBC that she plans to conduct a study in collaboration with the Survivor Corps, which analyzes blood samples from long-term Covid patients before and after vaccination. She said he hopes they can explain the relief that some patients experience after the vaccination.
The investigation is still in the planning stages, she said, adding: “We are working very hard to get it started.”
“I’ve received several emails and DMs on Twitter about patient experiences … and I hear every day from people who are better off getting the vaccine,” she said. “From where I stand, it looks encouraging.”
– CNBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn contributed to this report.