Long hauler phenomenon explained? In some COVID survivors, normally protective antibodies turn on their own cells

Credit: Science Lab/Alamy
Credit: Science Lab/Alamy

At some point, the body’s defense system in [some COVID survivors shifts] into attacking itself, rather than the virus, [a new] study suggests. The patients are producing molecules called “autoantibodies” that target genetic material from human cells, instead of from the virus.

This misguided immune response may exacerbate severe Covid-19. It may also explain why so-called “long haulers” have lingering problems months after their initial illness has resolved and the virus is gone from their bodies.

The findings carry important implications for treatment: Using existing tests that can detect autoantibodies, doctors could identify patients who might benefit from treatments used for lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. There is no cure for these diseases, but some treatments decrease the frequency and severity of flare-ups.

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“It’s possible that you could hit the appropriate patients harder with some of these more aggressive drugs and expect better outcomes,” said Matthew Woodruff, an immunologist at Emory University in Atlanta and lead author of the work.

The results were reported [October 23] on the preprint server MedRxiv, and have not yet been published in a scientific journal. But other experts said the researchers who carried out the study are known for their careful, meticulous work, and that the findings are not unexpected because other viral illnesses also trigger autoantibodies.

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