The risk of long Covid – the persistence of Covid symptoms like fatigue and headaches for three months or more – has been used to justify health interventions including with younger people who are not at elevated risk from acute infection. For instance, Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested in April that young people should get vaccinated to avoid long Covid, saying Covid was a “horrible disease” and long Covid affected people in their 20s “just as much” as any other age group, sometimes with “debilitating side effects that essentially ruin your life”.
New research, however, casts doubt on whether symptoms attributed to long Covid are really associated with COVID-19 at all, at least in adolescents.
The study, which has yet to be peer-reviewed, is the first (as far as the authors are aware) to compare the incidence of long Covid symptoms in those who have and have not had the virus, defined in terms of having detectable antibodies. It involved 1,560 secondary school pupils aged 13 to 18 in Eastern Saxony (median age 15) enrolled in the SchoolCovid19 study since May 2020. All have been tested for antibodies throughout the study and in March and April 2021 completed a 12 question long-Covid survey regarding “the occurrence and frequency of difficulties concentrating, memory loss, listlessness, headache, abdominal pain, myalgia/arthralgia, fatigue, insomnia and mood (sadness, anger, happiness and tenseness)”.
The findings are remarkable. Of 1,560 pupils, 1,365 (88%) were seronegative (no IgG antibodies detected) and 188 (12%) were seropositive. Each of the long Covid symptoms was present in at least 35% of the pupils within the seven days before the survey. Crucially, however, there was no statistically significant difference in reported symptoms between seropositive and seronegative pupils (see chart above).
These findings suggest that, in adolescents at least, the prevalence of long Covid is considerably exaggerated, and that the presumed symptoms of long Covid are common to those who have and have not had the virus. One possibility is that this is a background rate for teenagers. However, the authors are struck by the high incidence of the symptoms and suggest they may be linked to the lockdown conditions, saying they confirm “the negative effects of lockdown measures on mental health and well-being of children and adolescents”.
Because the study was only among adolescents it did not include any who had suffered severe illness or been hospitalised, which is where some earlier research on long Covid has focused.
For adolescents it suggests that the threat from long Covid has been greatly overdone, and that the apparent symptoms of the condition are much more likely to be caused by lockdowns than by a viral infection.