An employee prepares a BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine syringe and container in Schwaz, Austria.
JOHANN GRODER | AFP | fake 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 of Fargo, would later suffer from fatigue, mental confusion and an elevated heart rate that prompted doctors to advise her to stop exercising and attend cardiac rehab.
It wasn’t until about five days after she received her first injection from Pfizer in February that she began to feel better.
“All of a sudden, I stopped napping after cardiac rehab,” said Paulson, who also suffers from multiple sclerosis. “And then I started walking my dog. Then I thought, ‘hmm, I think I’m going to run a little too.’
Some people who have suffered persistent and often debilitating symptoms months after their initial bout with the virus say they are finding relief after getting vaccinated, baffling health experts. Survivor Corps, a patient advocacy group for people with the so-called Long Covid, recently surveyed nearly 900 members and found that 41% reported slight relief to full recovery shortly after receiving vaccines.
The World Health Organization estimates that about 1 in 10 Covid patients experience persistent poor health 12 weeks after contracting the virus. Researchers at the University of Washington published data in February that found that a third of patients reported ongoing symptoms, such as fatigue, shortness of breath and sleep disturbances, that persisted for nine months.
Symptoms of prolonged Covid, which researchers now call Post-Acute Sequelae of Covid-19, or PASC, can develop long after the initial infection, and the severity can range from mild to disabling, according to public health officials and health experts.
One of the largest global studies published in early January found that many people with ongoing illness after infection are unable to return to work at full capacity six months later. The study surveyed more than 3,700 people between the ages of 18 and 80 from 56 countries.
Diana Berrent, who founded Survivor Corps just over a year ago, suffered for months from prolonged Covid before most of her symptoms resolved on their own last year. He said some members of the organization were initially hesitant to get vaccinated. The members feared that the reported side effects of the injections would make their symptoms worse, he said.
“We really expected the worst” from vaccines, he told CNBC. “You could have knocked me down with a feather when I found out that some people were starting to get better because it was so out of line with what we expected.”
They are not alone. Facebook and Twitter are full of stories from people testifying, to their own surprise, that their symptoms alleviated or even disappeared after receiving the Covid vaccine.
Not understood well
Health experts still don’t have a good understanding of the cause of persistent symptoms.
Most studies have focused on people with a serious or fatal illness, not those who have recovered but still report persistent side effects, 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 launched an initiative in February to study Covid for a long time and identify potential causes and treatments. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said at the time that researchers hope to understand the underlying biological cause of the prolonged symptoms.
Doctors also don’t know why some long-term Covid patients say they feel better after getting vaccinated. Finding that out, experts say, could provide new insights into what’s behind persistent symptoms, as well as potential new treatments.
Sheri Paulson with her dog Jazzy in North Dakota.
Courtesy: Sheri Paulson
The viral reservoir
One theory, according to Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, is that vaccines help remove the so-called “viral reservoir,” where the virus can still linger in the body and cause chronic symptoms. The robust immune response induced by vaccines can help eliminate any leftover virus, eliminating symptoms, he said.
“That’s probably the simplest way” that vaccines could help people, he said. “If that’s the case, people will be cured of prolonged Covid, and it will be wonderful news.”
Iwasaki also hypothesized that Covid could be causing an autoimmune disease in which immune cells mistakenly damage the body. If that’s the case, the vaccines could provide “temporary relief” from symptoms and patients may need to return for another dose, he said.
There is no long-term data on how people feel after the vaccine, he said. “But I suspect that if the second [hypothesis] it’s true, then it won’t be a lasting relief. “
Darren Brown, a 37-year-old physiotherapist living in the UK, said his symptoms returned a few weeks after receiving his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Brown suffered from fatigue, restless sleep, and coordination problems for several months. He said that he felt his prolonged Covid symptoms had completely disappeared about three weeks after receiving his first injection. But just days before her second dose, she felt her symptoms start to return.
“I started noticing that I was getting more fatigued again,” he said. “The level that I thought I had been able to overcome, the threshold, I felt like it was lowered and I would have nothing in me afterwards. Go back to work. I just had to go to bed after a day of work.
You feel better from your second dose, but you are concerned that your symptoms will return.
“I am very cautious that this is not lasting,” he said. “But I’m also really overwhelmed by the excitement that he’s gotten up for now.”
Paulson, the North Dakota farmer, said she still has some symptoms, but the fatigue and mental confusion have disappeared since she received her second injection on March 18. She added that she is grateful to be well, especially since so many others died from the disease. .
“There are always things that put your life in perspective and take you back a bit,” said Paulson, who also works for a Massachusetts-based biotech company.
While the reports of relief from prolonged Covid symptoms might be good news, they are still only anecdotal, said Dr. Paul Offit, a voting member of the FDA’s Advisory Committee on Vaccines and Related Biologics.
A formal test still needs to be conducted to determine if the vaccines are really helping, he said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, said he is skeptical but “open-minded.”
“This is a question that can be answered and I hope we have decent data that can confirm or refute this,” Bogoch said. “Otherwise it’s just a bunch of collective anecdotes.”
Iwasaki told CNBC that he plans to conduct a study, in collaboration with Survivor Corps, analyzing blood samples from Covid patients for a long time before and after getting vaccinated. She said she hopes they can explain the relief some patients experience after vaccination.
The study is still in the planning stages, he said, adding that “we are working very hard to get it up and running.”
“I have received numerous emails and direct messages on Twitter about patient experiences … and I hear every day from people who feel better after receiving the vaccine,” he said. “From my point of view, it seems encouraging.”
– CNBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn contributed to this report.