06/25/2021

The Long Tail Of Long COVID

11:50 minutes

an illustration of a brown woman lying on our back with her hair spread out and abstract coronavirus particles in her hair
Credit: Shutterstock/Daniel Peterschmidt

This story is a part of Science Friday’s coverage on the novel coronavirus, the agent of the disease COVID-19. Listen to experts discuss the spread, outbreak response, and treatment.

As the highly transmissible delta variant of COVID-19 continues to spread, it now makes up more than 20% of cases in the United States—including in Missouri, where cases are the highest since mid-February.

Meanwhile, a new report finds the number of people experiencing long-term COVID symptoms is as high as 23% of those who have ever had the disease, including people who never had symptoms in their initial infection. The report from FAIR Health, which surveyed the insurance records of more than two million people, is the largest yet to investigate long COVID.

Guest host Sophie Bushwick talks to the MIT Technology Review’s Amy Nordrum about the long reach of COVID-19. Plus a bet about improbable physics, the arrival of baby bobtail squid at the International Space Station, and what happens when a spider eats a snake.


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Segment Guests

Amy Nordrum

Amy Nordrum is commissioning editor at MIT Technology Review. Previously, she was News Editor at IEEE Spectrum in New York City.

Segment Transcript

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is Science Friday. I’m Sophie Bushwick. I’m the technology editor for Scientific American and a regular contributor on the news roundup here, and I’m excited to be sitting in for Ira Flatow while he’s away this week.

Later in the hour, we’ll talk about California’s carbon credit program and whether it actually works, plus the secret lives of cephalopods with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. But first, the extra contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 has now been found in more than 80 countries and now makes up more than 20% of cases in the United States. Experts are predicting another surge of cases as a result of the variant’s higher transmission rate, especially in areas and populations where fewer people are vaccinated. Here, with more about this and other stories, Amy Nordrum an editor for the MIT Technology Review. Welcome, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Hi Sophie. Thanks for having me.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Let’s start with this Delta variant. It’s more transmissible, potentially makes people sicker, and it seems to be spreading around the world. What are the big worries here?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, this variant is expected to become the dominant strain in the US, eventually more common than the original alpha variant. Currently, it represents about 20% of infections in the US. As you say, it is more transmissible, and there is evidence that it’s more dangerous. So a recent study in The Lancet found that twice as many people who get it become hospitalized as compared with the original variant.

So that’s certainly a concern for people who are unvaccinated. That’s who’s most at risk for this variant, especially those people living in parts of the country or parts of the world where vaccination rates are low. In those areas, we could see a surge of cases from this variant, so in the US, that would be states like Missouri, or Utah, or Nevada.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And there’s a new report on COVID-19 patients who experience long-term symptoms, finding that more people may have experienced this than we thought.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Yeah, since the beginning of the pandemic, it’s been clear that some people who get COVID still have symptoms that last for weeks or for months after they’re first infected. And these patients have been called long haulers, and there’s been a lot of anecdotal reports of people suffering for a really long time, being in pain, or feeling fatigued, or having trouble breathing. But there’s not been a lot of data on how common this condition is.

Now, this week a nonprofit called FAIR put out one of the largest analyzes that’s ever been done on this condition, and they looked at insurance records of about two million COVID-19 patients over a one-year period. And they found that about 23% of everyone who had gotten COVID-19 ended up having symptoms that lasted for more than 30 days after they were first infected, so this really is a pretty common experience. And they even found some long haulers who were asymptomatic when they first got COVID– so they didn’t have any initial symptoms from the infection but later went on to develop these longer-term problems.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: As you’ve mentioned, some of these symptoms include sleep problems, headaches, and brain fog. To what degree do you think long COVID should be considered a disability?

AMY NORDRUM: That’s a great question. There’s a lot of conversation about this right now. Just this week, the CDC put out new guidance on exactly how to treat these patients, telling primary care providers to focus on managing their symptoms, which can vary so much between patients, and also just telling them to take it seriously because some of these symptoms are really hard to formally diagnose or test for. And the CDC was emphasizing to doctors that they should still do what they can to help patients.

Clearly, we’re just still in year two of this pandemic, and there’s not a lot known about what the long long-term effects from this long COVID syndrome might be.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You mentioned that those guidelines were just issued recently, but we’ve known that long haulers have had these issues for a while now. Why do you think it took so long for those guidelines to come out?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’m not sure. I think sometimes it takes a while to even issue preliminary guidance like that because the CDC wanted to be sure that this was happening or to understand it better. And many doctors have been helping patients along the way with the symptoms that they were experiencing.

But the truth is that even this report is likely an underestimate of how common this condition is. It’s actually based on private insurance records, so that tends to represent a wealthier population that might be in better health than the general population. And of course, some symptoms likely go unreported just because people deal with them on their own and don’t go to the doctor. So even this 23%, this is likely an underestimate of how common these situations really are.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Let’s move on to your next story, looking at energy prices and the cost of renewable energy specifically. Can we say that it’s looking sunny?

AMY NORDRUM: I think you can say that. You’ve probably heard that solar energy and wind energy is getting more competitive with fossil fuel plants over time, but a new report out this week by the International Renewable Energy Agency looks back at the last decade. And it shows just how far we’ve come in terms of renewable energy becoming more economically feasible.

So the cost of electricity from utility scale solar panels, for example, fell by 85% from 2010 to 2020, and the cost of electricity from onshore wind fell by 56% during that period. And so as a result, their analysis found that, on average, building solar or wind farms today can actually generate cheaper electricity than building new power plants that run on fossil fuels.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Why do we think that those prices are falling so quickly?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, it’s due in part to things like the economics of scale, building more facilities, building things more efficiently, people getting better at building and installing these facilities at a lower cost, and it’s also because fossil fuels have become more expensive to burn due to carbon taxes. So that’s also a factor here, especially in Europe, where you need to pay taxes on greenhouse gas emissions that any plant generates.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: OK, this next story seems pretty weird, partly because it’s about a bet but also somehow physics. Please, tell us more.

AMY NORDRUM: Well, let me start with the question that this bet is trying to answer, which is, is it possible for a wind-powered vehicle to travel downwind faster than the wind is blowing? So if you think about a sailboat, you might expect it to go as fast as the wind that’s blowing it, but this question is, could it go even faster?

And a lot of physicists might tell you that this isn’t possible because, as they point out, where is the energy coming from that allows the vehicle to accelerate faster than the wind that’s heading its sails? So that would seem to violate the law of the conservation of energy that says you can’t create or destroy energy. But, and this is where the bet comes in, there’s an engineer who years ago claimed he’d successfully built a vehicle that could actually do this and go more than twice the speed of the wind blowing it.

So he’s been saying this for a while, and it’s been a really controversial claim. And recently, a YouTuber named Derek Muller took this vehicle out for a spin and made a video showing him in it in which he appeared to be going faster than the wind blowing it. So this video reignited this whole debate, and Muller made a $10,000 bet with the physics professor at UCLA over whether this vehicle really works as the inventor claims it does.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And when will we find out the results of the bet?

AMY NORDRUM: So actually, on Wednesday, the Professor Alexander Kusenko conceded the bet. He didn’t really say that Muller was right or that this is possible. He said it was technically possible for the vehicle to temporarily be faster than the wind because of changes in the wind speed, so if the wind started to die down while the car was still going at a faster rate for a moment because it hadn’t yet slowed down to match the current wind speed. So he conceded the bet but didn’t necessarily agree with Muller on the reasons why.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So would you say that this is settled or that there could be follow-up debate over the issue?

AMY NORDRUM: I think there will be a follow-up debate over the issue. The mechanism of how this might be possible is under debate still. Like Muller had said, the propeller on Blackbird, this vehicle, acted like a kind of fan, and the professor says it’s more like a fan in a turbine. So there’s kind of disagreement on exactly how the vehicle propels itself forward. So I think there could be more studies and more debate over this, for sure.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I have to say I was not quite ready for this next story. There’s a new study out on spiders that eat snakes. I had no idea I needed to worry about this.

AMY NORDRUM: I didn’t know about this either, and so, yes, this happens. And it happens pretty often in the wild. So this new study found that many different species of spiders eat all kinds of different snakes all around the world. It’s really a pretty common behavior. It characterized hundreds of examples in the wild where this had been recorded happening. And so spiders have been known to eat bats and birds before, actually, but this is one more animal that can clearly become their prey.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: How does a spider take down a snake?

AMY NORDRUM: Well, these are venomous spiders, so in some cases, they do catch the snake in a sort of web and then bite it, poisoning them. And then it takes a while sometimes for the snake to die, but they hang around. And once they’re dead, the spiders just go for it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: And is the spider eating the whole snake? Or it’s just kind of nibbling on the edges? Or what’s going on there?

AMY NORDRUM: Yeah, so they actually suck out the insides of the snake–

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Ah, mmm.

AMY NORDRUM: [LAUGHS] Other than eating them whole. Yeah, so that is the same kind of thing that they do with a lot of insects. They do it to snakes as well.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Well, that is horrifying. OK, OK, that’s– that’s all I think I can manage with the spiders and the snakes. Moving on to something a little less monstrous,

[LAUGHTER]

As I mentioned before, it’s Cephalopod Week here at Science Friday. So we can’t let this news roundup pass without a story about “Squid in Space”.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s right. Yes, there are currently more than 100 baby squid living on the International Space Station. So these squid were raised in Hawaii, and NASA sent them up earlier this month to study how living in microgravity affects symbiotic or a mutually beneficial relationship that these squid have with a certain type of bacteria.

So this bacteria lives inside of a special organ in the squid, and it causes it to light up when the squid are hunting at night, which actually– that helps disguise the squid from its prey because it mimics the way that the moonlight looks on the water. So these squid are up there now in space for the next month after which they will be frozen and sent back to Earth to study.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So they’re frozen. Do they do they survive that transition?

AMY NORDRUM: They do not survive the transition back, but they will– yes, so they will just L studied once they’re dead. But yeah, hopefully, they will help us learn more about this relationship between a microbe and an organism.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Oh man, I was hoping for this to be a little cuter, but I guess the poor squid also end up like the poor snakes, just at least the squid are contributing to science.

AMY NORDRUM: That’s true. It could help us even learn more– we have lots of microbes in our digestive tracts, and they help to strengthen our immune system. And astronauts have experienced some issues with their immune systems during some long-term space missions in the past. So these tiny little squid might help us understand better how microgravity affects microbes and help future space missions.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s good to know, and that’s all the time we have, though keep listening for more cephalopod stories later in the hour. Thanks again, Amy.

AMY NORDRUM: Thanks, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Amy Nordrum, an editor for the MIT Technology Review.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is a producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is technology editor at Scientific American in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science.

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