New data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) suggests that around half of people suffering from long-COVID may not actually have the disease and instead might just be suffering from common pangs of illness.
The conclusions come after ONS surveys shows cases of long-COVID may not be as widespread as once thought, and the prevalence of post-COVID symptoms is sensitive depending on the method of data collection used.
Long-COVID symptoms are common among the general population
In coming to their conclusion, ONS surveyed 27,000 Brits who tested positive for coronavirus as part of the UK Coronavirus Infection Survey. ONS then used three different methods to determine the prevalence of long-COVID throughout the country.
One method showed that at least one in five per cent of people recovering from coronavirus reported at least one symptom of long-COVID 12-16 weeks after initial infection. However, the study also showed that 3.4% of people who had not previously been diagnosed with coronavirus also reported having the same symptoms of long-COVID.
Common symptoms of long-COVID are similar to that of the regular virus, including fever, headache, muscle aches, fatigue, nausea/vomiting, abdominal pain, coughing, shortness of breath, and loss of taste and smell.
ONS also admitted that these symptoms are often experienced regularly among the general population and aren’t limited to those experiencing long-COVID. Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at The Open University, reiterated a similar point to The Telegraph, stating:
That’s not all that much less than the 5.0 per cent for the infected people, which does show that having one or more of these symptoms isn’t uncommon regardless of COVID-19.
The second round of analysis revealed that just three per cent of those previously testing positive for COVID had symptoms of long-COVID that lasted for at least 12 weeks post-infection. Meanwhile, only 0.5% of participants experienced symptoms lasting that same time period in the control population.
The third and final method asked participants whether or not they would self-identify with having long-COVID, with 11.7% of respondents believing they had the condition. A further 7.5% of people thought that long-COVID also impacted their day to day lives. When limiting the survey pool to only those who experienced symptomatic COVID infection, the prevalence of self-identified long-COVID rose to 17.7%.
Long-COVID might be less common than predicted
Previous studies have suggested that up to one-fifth of coronavirus sufferers may also experience long-COVID. However, ONS’s latest findings suggest this number may be smaller.
The ONS revealed that depending on which method was used, only 3% - 11.5% of people would continue to have symptoms of COVID 12 weeks post-infection.
Dr Michael Absoud, the honorary reader at the department of women and children’s health at King’s College London, commented on the findings: ‘The ONS are to be congratulated for engaging with clinicians and scientists to review their methodology and provide updated estimates on post-Covid symptoms.’
The ONS first published the approach in April 2021, and reported a 12-week prevalence of long Covid in 14 per cent. This has now been revised down to 3 per cent in the latest estimate.
Dr Absoud went on: ‘The significant fall in the prevalence estimate is due to different interpretations of when symptoms come to an end, and also better long-term follow-up for symptoms beyond the 12-week point.’
However, just because the study concluded that long-COVID might not be as common as once predicted, it doesn’t make the condition any less serious. Daniel Ayoubkhani, a Principal Statistician in the Health Analysis and Life Events Division at the ONS, wrote in an ONS blog post:
In one sense, the results are reassuring: the majority of people infected with coronavirus (88% to 97%) don’t experience symptoms beyond the first 12 weeks, and some of those who do will start to feel better over time.
Ayoubkkhani continued: ‘But for the minority of people who do go on to experience long-term symptoms, the effects can be debilitating, and we should remember that the absolute numbers could be considerable: our most recent population-level estimates suggest that 643,000 people in private households in the UK could be experiencing activity-limiting long COVID symptoms.’