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What does ‘living with COVID’ look like in 2022?

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Director of the Australian National Phenome Centre, Professor Jeremy Nicholson, shares the path forward on how we may continue to live with COVID in 2022 and beyond.

As national vaccination rates rise and Victoria and New South Wales begin to open up, Australia may be saying goodbye to the hard lockdowns imposed on huge parts of the population

For many Western Australians, lockdown meant those ten-weeks at home back in early 2020, a few weeks of mask-wearing since and the opening and closing of borders at the drop of a hat.

But as we edge closer to a 90% fully vaccinated state in the new year, what does ‘living with COVID’ look like in 2022?

According to Professor Jeremy Nicholson, Director of the Australian National Phenome Centre at Murdoch University, for most of us COVID-19 will still be an influence in our daily lives in 2022. 

“We have not yet as a nation emerged from the pandemic. Many relatively unexposed places such as Western Australia are currently safe, but that will change as our state borders open,” said Professor Nicholson.

“The other thing to remember is that this disease hasn’t finished evolving yet. There’s still different variants emerging and as long as there are high levels of infection in the population then new variants will emerge.”

Professor Nicholson is leading the COVID-19 Critical Research Program at Murdoch University, investigating the biochemical effects the virus has on our organ systems and the longevity or persistence of the symptoms – otherwise known as ‘Long COVID’.

So, what do we know about the ongoing impact of the disease on an infected person? 

“Long COVID is not dependent on gender or severity. People who were mildly symptomatic and not hospitalised can still get Long COVID,” said Professor Nicholson.

 

What’s quite interesting is Long COVID evolves through time as well. There are symptoms that can appear, like loss of smell for instance, that weren’t there to start with, which emerge later.

“The same thing happens with the person’s biochemistry. There are biochemical markers in the blood that build up months after the person has contracted the acute disease. 

“It’s not only evolving from the point of view of the virus changing, its actually evolving and divergent in the way it’s expressing itself in the population.”

Professor Nicholson reiterates the important role vaccinations against COVID-19 play in reducing the possibility of getting Long COVID and blunting the effects of the disease.
 
“Vaccinations - it doesn't matter much which type - are highly effective at preventing serious disease and hospitalisation even with new variants,” he said.
 
“And it will continue to do so, but it only works well when used with other public health protection measures such as indoor masks in public places and reducing the sizes of public gatherings and super spreader events.”
 
Professor Nicholson points to the United Kingdom as an example of just how important safe social procedures are.
 
“Even with a high vaccination rate, 1 in 63 people in the UK have COVID. The consequence is there has been a massive resurgence in the virus, so even though the effect is blunted and the death rate is not as high as it was, it’s still taking up the country’s National Health Service hospital resources.
 
“People are not being able to use intensive care because it's filled with people with COVID, they’re not being able to get cancer treatments, they’re not able to have operations. There’s a clear flow on effect,” said Professor Nicholson.
 
“In fact, for elective surgeries and access to support like orthopaedics, the waiting list is between five and six years. It’s the highest it has ever been for the NHS and that is a direct result of COVID.”
 
Professor Nicholson and the ANPC team continue to study Long COVID – scientifically known as Post-Acute COVID-19 Syndrome – to understand the biochemical imbalances and to create new recovery diagnostics. 

 

We now have a range of new biomarkers that can be monitored during the acute disease phase and beyond to ascertain exactly how the disease is progressing.”

New COVID-19 variants with higher receptor binding and higher infectivity, like the Delta strain, are taking advantage of gaps in our bodies defences to drive new outbreaks.

“These new variants have highlighted that there are still major gaps in our understanding of the disease process and the highly complex systemic dysfunction that leads to persistent symptoms and long-term damage,” he said. 

“By uncovering the biochemistry, we will also learn more about how to treat and mitigate the disease process.

“In the long-term, we might get new antiviral drugs to help the fight but that looks like a slow process as with all drug discovery. 

“However, our only real weapons, at the moment, are vaccines and controls on social behaviour.”

This research supports the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3 to ensure healthy lives and promote well.being for all at all ages.

 
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Posted on:

28 Oct 2021

Topics:

Research, Health

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Health Futures Institute

The many interlinked facets of human health, from understanding the genome and its variable expression, to disease surveillance, health data linkage, mental health and navigating life's milestones, intersect at the Health Futures Institute.

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