10/16/2020

Months Into The Pandemic, Illness Lingers For Some Declared Virus-Free

12:07 minutes

This story is 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.


an abstract illustration of people in masks with a city in the background
Credit: Shutterstock

As the pandemic extends into the fall of 2020, what do we know about the long-term effects of the virus on people who have been infected with COVID-19? Some people report experiencing a variety of seemingly unrelated symptoms, including brain fog, fatigue, heart, lung, and gut problems—many months after being declared virus-free. In the absence of a clear diagnosis from the medical community, people with the condition have themselves named it “Long COVID.” 

Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American joins Ira to discuss how Long COVID sufferers are finding solidarity on social medical and online forums, and are calling for the scientific community to study it further. Plus, what we know about the first U.S. case of coronavirus reinfection and how to stay safe from COVID-19 when heading to the polls.

*Editor’s Note 10/16/2020: In the broadcast, U.S. Senate candidate Barbara Bollier’s name was incorrectly pronounced. We regret the error.

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Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

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

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’ll talk to astronomer, Andrea Ghez, who’s hunt for a supermassive black hole at the heart of our galaxy won her part of this year’s Nobel Prize in physics. But first, as the pandemic extends into the fall of 2020, we are learning more about the long-term effects of the virus on people who have been infected with COVID-19. For example, some people report experiencing a variety of unrelated symptoms, from brain fog and tiredness, to heart, lung, and gut problems for many months after being declared virus-free.

Doctors and scientists don’t yet quite understand why these symptoms persist. And in the absence of a clear diagnosis, people with the condition have themselves named it long COVID. Here to talk about that and other news from the week is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American. Always nice to have you back, Sophie.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thanks, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Tell us about long COVID. Have we come up with a definition yet for what it is?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So long COVID refers to the patients who, after they recover from an initial bout with COVID, continue to have symptoms. Or they might feel that they don’t recover in the first place and that they continue to have issues. So data suggests that about 10% of COVID-19 patients still feel unwell after three weeks. And then a smaller group, about 5% of patients, can be sick for months. Some people who have gotten sick towards the beginning of the pandemic have been sick for seven months, have been having these symptoms that can include, as you said, problems breathing, heart issues, problems with their gut, as well as neurological issues such as brain fog and forgetfulness.

IRA FLATOW: And we really don’t have any theories as to why the symptoms are so different.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So far, researchers are just starting to really dive into this. Because this is such a new disease, everything is fresh and they’re still looking for theories about this. One current theory is that there is a set of several different syndromes that is associated with COVID and post-COVID recovery, and that perhaps people are afflicted with multiple of these syndromes at the same time. So at first, they might have an issue with their heart. And then maybe those symptoms abate and then a different set of symptoms arises neurologically, for example.

IRA FLATOW: And what should patients who suspect they have long COVID do?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So data is really valuable now. If patients are continuing to suffer from these symptoms, logging what they’re feeling and keeping track of these symptoms could be very helpful for health researchers, as well as the patients. The medical system needs to be able to support them. So it’s very important that the doctors, for example, not dismiss ongoing symptoms in COVID patients and that they take this seriously. And the medical system needs to be able to offer support to people. Because like I said, 5% can be sick for months, which sounds like a small number. But about 38 million people all over the world have COVID. And 5% of 38 million is a pretty big number.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, lots of people. Another thing we’re seeing as the pandemic continues, a few cases of coronavirus reinfection, including the first instance reported here in the US this week.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. There was a case in Nevada where researchers have found that a patient had indeed been reinfected and actually became sicker the second time he was infected with the virus. But I would like to emphasize that this is a very, very rare occurrence. This man adds to the number of total patients, but there’s about five patients worldwide who have been definitively proved to be reinfected. And as I mentioned, that’s out of 38 million. So the chances of infection at the moment seem to be less than 1 in a million.

IRA FLATOW: When you say definitively proven, how do we know a person is really reinfected?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this is kind of interesting. Basically, researchers need to have sequenced the genome of the virus that the patient had originally. And then they need to sequence the genome of the virus that the person gets on reinfection. And then they need to be able to prove that those two genomes are different enough that it’s not just the same infection flaring back up.

So this is actually tricky, right? Because when a patient comes to the hospital with COVID, the first instinct is not necessarily, oh, let’s sequence the genome of this virus. So the number of people who are eligible for this kind of testing is not super high, which means there could be other cases we’re not aware about. But it does seem like those cases would still be extremely rare.

IRA FLATOW: Really interesting. Let’s move on to some other topics in the news, really, a weird one. Researchers say that they calculate that the probability we are living in a simulation is 50/50, a coin toss. Really?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Really. I really enjoyed this type of speculation. Back in 2003, a researcher suggested how would we be able to tell if we’re living in a simulation? Let’s say we have– that there exists a very technologically advanced society and they’ve got near infinite computing power. They can make a really, really detailed simulation of real life that existed only within the world of this computer. And they would simulate the laws of physics and the behavior of life forms in this simulation.

And if your computing power was high enough and the simulation was good enough, it would seem a lot like real life. So how can we tell whether we’re living in base reality or we are actually conscious beings being simulated by this unfathomably technically-advanced civilization?

IRA FLATOW: Yes. Because if you’re inside the box, how do you know you’re inside the box?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly. Well, one suggestion is, again, I said near infinite computing power. So if you have this computer trying to simulate reality in our world, scientists sometimes have to of cut corners when they’re simulating something incredibly complex. They can’t get the exact right answer, but they can get an approximation of the right answer. And when you apply the idea that some of the laws that govern us, some of the rules of our world might just be approximations and not exact, then you might be able to run certain quantum experiments that might have little flaws in it or little approximations where you’d expect exactitude. And by looking at that, researchers might be able to tell, oh, this is the sign that we’re a simulation.

On the other hand, it could just be that that’s the way reality works and our models of reality aren’t good enough to cope. We don’t have quite the right idea yet. So it’s the kind of thing that’s very, very hard to definitively prove or disprove.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, it gets back to my talking about always looking for new laws of physics we haven’t discovered yet.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Exactly, yes. It could just be there’s some law of physics that we either haven’t discovered or we have the wrong idea about, we don’t have the numbers quite right. So it’s the kind of thing that’s a lot of fun to speculate about, but I don’t think that we’re going to ever see a paper come out that’s going to say this is definitive. We are a simulation, or not.

IRA FLATOW: Not too soon. Speaking about things that are fun to speculate about, that includes, I understand, trying to build a room temperature superconductor. There’s news on that?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, there is. So a superconductor is a substance that can conduct electricity very fast and efficiently. It doesn’t lose any of its umph to heat dissipation. And this could make for super electronic devices that never overheat. But the problem is in order to get a substance to the point where it’s a superconductor, researchers typically have to chill it to very, very cold temperatures. And that’s not super practical for everyday use.

So in recent years, researchers have been toying with taking materials and putting them under extremely high pressures. And when they do that, they’ve been able to maintain superconductivity at temperatures that are relatively warm but are still pretty cold. I think up until now, the best they could do was about negative 13 Celsius.

But most recently, they’ve managed to create a superconducting material at 15 degrees Celsius. That’s about 59 degrees Fahrenheit. So that’s the kind of temperature that’s pretty easy to maintain. The only issue is there’s a bit of a catch. This only functions at pressures about as high as you’d find in the center of the Earth.

IRA FLATOW: Small detail, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Little bit, yeah. Yeah, you don’t want to have to operate a computer at that kind of pressure.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Well, as we say in the science business, more research needs to be done, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Absolutely. And I think that this finding, though, does give rise to new ideas about the type of material. So this particular material is made of a combination of hydrogen, sulfur, and carbon. And it suggests that maybe different combinations of this material or compounds of hydrogen and two other elements could have different properties. Researchers can now start testing a lot of those and see if any of them can keep functioning at slightly less extreme pressures.

IRA FLATOW: Fun stuff. Let’s move on to the election, the 800 pound gorilla in the room. While we’ve been focusing on the presidential election, there are congressional seats to consider. And there are a few doctors running for those seats this year during a pandemic, right?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. There is at least two big races, one in Arizona and one in Kansas, where doctors have thrown their hats into the ring. And one thought is that in the middle of this pandemic, when we’re relying on health care workers and doctors to keep people safe and they’re being seen as heroes, it is possible that public opinion could help doctors who are running for political office.

So in Arizona, there’s a race between Dr. Hiral Tipirneni and David Schweikert. Tipirneni is a Democrat, Schweikert is a Republican. And he’s also the incumbent. So Dr. Tipirneni, she would need to win a race that’s tough to win against an incumbent. But she thinks that being a doctor and having a scientific background could help her in this race.

IRA FLATOW: You know, I’ve seen this in a couple of other congressional races. In my own little world here in the East Coast, I’ve seen running as a doctor, the candidate thinks that that is a big plus because as you say, people trust doctors more than they do politicians, especially now.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s exactly right. But it’s actually interesting. In some cases, you have doctor versus doctor. So there’s a contest in Kansas right now where there’s two doctors running against each other. Dr. Roger Marshall is a Republican and Dr. Barbara Bollier is a Democrat. But despite the fact that both of them have medical degrees, they have very different opinions on climate change. Dr. Marshall, the Republican candidate, has said that he is not sure that there even is climate change. And he said that as recently as 2017. Whereas Dr. Bollier has stated that climate change is an issue for her.

IRA FLATOW: And it’s certainly going to be an issue in this election for a lot of people.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: For a lot of people, climate change is an extremely important issue.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Finally, there’s a wonderful space first coming up next Tuesday. A return sample mission from an asteroid, first time we’ve ever tried that.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is very exciting. The OSIRIS-REx space probe is going to be taking a sample from the asteroid Bennu, and then bringing it back to Earth, which is very exciting.

IRA FLATOW: Going to bring it back. It’s going to hang around for a couple years. And this is going to be televised so people can watch it as it’s happening. I find that really cool. Don’t you?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is a ground breaking– an asteroid breaking first.

IRA FLATOW: Got that joke from you. That’s good.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you. Thank you. I try. But this is going to be a very exciting thing to watch. It’s on Tuesday. I think that they’re starting the televised broadcast around 2:00 PM. And then I think they’re expecting to be able to actually scoop up the sample up at about 6:00 PM east coast time.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie, always bringing us exciting stuff to talk about. Thank you for taking time to be with us today. Hopefully, we’ll be watching.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Thank you. I’m definitely going to watch.

IRA FLATOW: Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American.

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