University of Manitoba team receives $202,000 grant to study ‘long COVID’

A team of researches at the University of Manitoba have received a $202,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study what's become known as "long-haul COVID.". Darryl Dyck / The Canadian Press

A team of researchers at the University of Manitoba has received a $202,000 grant from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to study what’s become known as “long-haul COVID.”

Research into the loosely defined condition is still in its infancy, with the World Health Organization (WHO) only recently settling on a definition.

“Post COVID-19 condition,” the WHO says, “occurs in individuals with a history of probable or confirmed SARS CoV-2 infection, usually three months from the onset of COVID-19 with symptoms and that last for at least two months and cannot be explained by an alternative diagnosis.”

The WHO says common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, and cognitive dysfunction, but can include other issues that generally impact a person’s everyday life.

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The lead researcher at the University of Manitoba is Alan Katz, the director of the Manitoba Centre for Health Policy, and a professor of family medicine and community health sciences.

“My concern is that the impact of COVID is currently being considered primarily in the context of hospital beds being occupied and ICU beds being occupied,” Katz says.

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“This (study) is about understanding what’s coming in the next six months to years around what our health system will face the more these people who have had COVID infection may go on to long COVID.”

Katz says their research has three primary goals.

The team wants to understand what proportion of people who had COVID-19 ultimately end up with “long COVID,” who is most likely to be affected, and what symptoms people are experiencing exactly.

Katz says the literature that’s been published so far varies widely in terms of these questions, and particularly how many people are being affected.

“Some people are claiming it’s 10 per cent, others are claiming it’s up to 50 per cent,” Katz says.

“Clearly, that’s an important question to understand if we’re planning for our health-care system. In Manitoba, we’ve had more than 65,000 infections — in Canada more than 1.7-million infections of COVID. It’s a big difference if 10 per cent of those people have consequences or up to 50 per cent.”

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Manitoba is in a unique position to be able to study these research questions, Katz says, because of an anonymized database called the Manitoba Population Research Database “which includes information on every single Manitoban who has a contact with the health-care system.”

“Using this very complex database, we can look at people who first tested positive for COVID. We can start then looking at them three months after that initial infection, and we can follow them forward,” Katz explains.

The team has just received its ethics approval to be able to access the database, and Katz expects the team will have the other permissions it needs in place within a week or so to begin the laborious work of combing through the reams of information.

The funding the team received will allow for a one-year study. Katz says the work is crucial to get an idea of the implications of long COVID-19 on people’s health, and what the health care system could be faced with months or years from now.

“As this continues, there will be more and more of them, and they will potentially overrun our healthcare system in the long-term with the need for rehabilitation services, (and) with the need for treatment of respiratory problems,” Katz says.

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“We’re potentially missing a big piece of impact of COVID infection.”

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