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University to participate in National Institutes of Health clinical trials for long COVID

20230907_Peng_university-covid-clinical-trials
The Gillings School of Global Public Health, which studies coronaviruses in their Michael Hooker Research Center epidemiology labs, is photographed on Thursday, Sept. 7, 2023.

UNC will take part in clinical research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health evaluating treatments for long COVID over a six-month period, according to an Aug. 1 announcement. 

This summer, the University was selected to participate in the NIH's Researching COVID to Enhance Recovery (RECOVER) Initiative. Through the program, UNC researchers will conduct a series of trials over a six-month period in part of a national study exploring long COVID and the viral persistence of SARS-CoV-2.

Long COVID is a broad term describing changes to an individual’s health that are persistent after a COVID-19 diagnosis. Common symptoms of long COVID include fatigue, breathing difficulties and impaired memory retention.  

The RECOVER Initiative has sites across the country evaluating the symptoms, treatments and effects of long COVID. 

John Baratta, assistant professor in the School of Medicine, is the co-director and founder of the UNC COVID Recovery Clinic. He said the first clinical trial at UNC will test the effectiveness of an antiviral drug known as Paxlovid on long COVID symptoms. 

“We are familiar with Paxlovid as a treatment for acute COVID infections,” Baratta said. “It works very well at reducing the severity of acute COVID and minimizing the progression of COVID cases to needing hospitalization.”

Rather than investigating acute COVID-19 patients — those with more severe symptoms during exposure — Baratta said the UNC study will research the effects of Paxlovid on long COVID patients. The study will deliver longer dose regimens of the Pfizer drug to participants to determine whether the medication is effective for mitigating long COVID symptoms. 

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing for over three years, Baratta said in an email that lingering symptoms can be a common, yet under-recognized, condition limiting an individual’s quality of life in both school and work. 

“We still don't have much hard evidence to point to, or what types of treatment approaches would be effective,” Baratta said. “I'm hoping that this new series of studies gives us evidence and a path forward for people who could be affected.”

Timothy Sheahan is an assistant professor in the epidemiology department within the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health with a research background in emerging viral diseases and related therapeutics. Sheahan said COVID-19 research has generally shifted from developing treatments in the hospital to addressing a "post acute disease world."

“The shift in the use of therapeutics to try and treat people early to prevent long-term disease is, I think, a new focus in that kind of arena,” Sheahan said. “It wasn't even something that really would have been considered early on in the pandemic, just because there was so much acute severe disease out there.”

As for future steps, Sheahan said the virus is never going away and will always be dynamic and changing over time. 

Mackenzie Roche, a second-year law student at UNC, said she got COVID-19 twice and thinks the virus is a bigger issue than illnesses like the common cold or flu because of inconsistent messaging regarding its long-term effects. 

“We have more research coming out that there are long-term effects and long COVID is impacting people,” Roche said. “I definitely think it's more than the flu, especially because there's inconsistent messaging about how often you're supposed to get the booster.”

While Roche said they do not feel any obvious long-term effects from COVID-19, she said it may be harder for students to feel comfortable asking for accommodations and time off due to the University’s announcement that it will treat positive COVID-19 test results similarly to other respiratory or gastrointestinal illnesses, effective Aug. 21.

In the same statement, the University also announced that COVID-related absences would no longer be University-approved.

Rather than ignoring its presence, Roche saidincreasing messaging about COVID-19 symptoms, isolation and long COVID would be a better route for scientific leaders to take. 

“I understand we do have to get back to normal in a sense,” Roche said. “But that normal doesn’t have to look exactly like what pre-COVID looks like. It can look new.”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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