An employee in Schwaz, Austria, creates a syringe and container with the BioNTech / Pfizer vaccine.
JOHANN GRODER | AFP | Getty Images
Sheri Paulson struggled to get out of bed months after being diagnosed with Covid-19.
The 53-year-old North Dakota resident and family contracted the disease after attending a wedding in August. Paulson, an endurance athlete who runs a farm outside Fargo, later suffered from fatigue, brain fog, and an increased heart rate, which led doctors to advise her to stop exercising and take cardiac rehabilitation.
It wasn’t until about five days after her first Pfizer shot in February that she began to feel better.
“Suddenly I stopped napping after cardiac rehabilitation,” said Paulson, who also has multiple sclerosis. “And then I started walking my dog. Then I thought, ‘Hmm, I think I’ll run a little too.'”
Some people who have had persistent and often debilitating symptoms months after their first battle with the virus say they find relief after vaccination, according to puzzling health experts. Survivor Corps, a patient advocacy group for people with long covid, recently surveyed nearly 900 members and found that 41% reported slight relief for full recovery shortly after the shot.
The World Health Organization estimates that around 1 in 10 Covid patients have persistent illness 12 weeks after the virus emerged. University of Washington researchers released data in February that showed a third of patients reported persistent symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, and insomnia that lasted for up to nine months.
The symptoms of long-term Covid, which researchers now refer to as post-acute consequences of Covid-19 or PASC, can develop well after the initial infection, and the severity can range from mild to incompetent, according to health officials and health experts.
One of the largest global studies, published in early January, found that many people who suffer from persistent illness after being infected cannot return to work at full capacity six months later. The study interviewed more than 3,700 people aged 18 to 80 from 56 countries.
Diana Berrent, who founded the Survivor Corps a little over a year ago, suffered from long-term Covid for months before most of her symptoms went away on their own last year. She said some members of the organization were initially reluctant to get vaccinated. Members feared the reported side effects of the gunshots would make their symptoms worse, she said.
“We really expected the worst,” she told CNBC. “You could have knocked me over with a feather when I found out that some people were starting to get better because it was just so outside of what we expected.”
You are not alone. Facebook and Twitter are full of stories from people who testify, to their own surprise, that their symptoms are alleviated or even gone after receiving a Covid vaccine.
Not well understood
The cause of the persistent symptoms is not yet well understood by health professionals.
Most studies have focused on people with a serious or fatal illness, not those who have recovered but still report persistent side effects, the so-called long-distance drivers. The virus is also relatively new – it was discovered a little over a year ago – so there are no long-term data on it.
The National Institutes of Health launched an initiative in February to study long Covid and identify the causes and possible treatments. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins said at the time that the researchers hope to understand the underlying biological cause of the persistent symptoms.
Doctors also don’t know why some long-term Covid patients say they feel better after being immunized. Experts say this could provide new insight into what’s behind the persistent symptoms, as well as potential new treatments.
Sheri Paulson with her dog Jazzy in North Dakota.
Courtesy Sheri Paulson
The virus reservoir
One theory, according to Yale immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, is that the vaccines help clear what is known as the “reservoir of virus” where the virus may still linger in the body and cause chronic symptoms. The robust immune response induced by the vaccines can help clear any leftover viruses and clear up symptoms, she said.
“That’s probably the easiest way,” she said. “If that is the case, long covid will cure people and that will be wonderful news.”
Iwasaki also hypothesized that Covid could cause an autoimmune disease in which immune cells mistakenly damage the body. If so, the vaccines could provide “temporary relief” of symptoms and patients may have to come back for another dose, she said.
There are no long-term data on how people feel after the vaccine, she said. “But I suspect that if the second [hypothesis] is true then there will be no lasting relief. “
The symptoms returned
Darren Brown, a 37-year-old physical therapist from 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 incoordination for several months. He said his long Covid symptoms had completely improved about three weeks after his first shot. But just days before his second dose, he felt his symptoms return.
“I noticed that I was getting tired again,” he said. “The level I thought I could have pushed myself from, the threshold, it felt like it had been reduced and I was left with nothing afterwards in me.” Return to work. I just had to go to bed after a day at work. “
He’s been feeling better since his second dose, but fears his symptoms may come back.
“I’m very careful that this won’t last long,” he said. “But I’m also really overwhelmed with the excitement that it’s being lifted for now.”
Paulson, the North Dakota farmer, said she still had some symptoms but the fatigue and brain fog had gone since she got her second shot on March 18. She added that she was grateful that she was fine, especially since many others died from the disease.
“There are always things that put life into perspective for you and get you a little on your heels,” said Paulson, who also works for a Massachusetts-based biotech company.
While the reports of long-term Covid symptom relief might be good news, they are still just anecdotal, said Dr. Paul Offit, a voting member of the FDA’s Advisory Committee on Vaccines and Related Biological Products.
There has yet to be a formal study to see if the vaccines actually help, he said.
Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Toronto, said he was skeptical but “open-minded”.
“This is an answerable question and I hope we have decent data to confirm or disprove it,” said Bogoch. “Otherwise it’s just a few collective anecdotes”
Iwasaki told CNBC that she plans to work with Survivor Corps to conduct a study to analyze blood samples from long Covid patients before and after vaccination. She said he hoped they can explain the relief some patients experience after vaccination.
The study is still in the planning stages, she said, adding, “We’re working very hard to get this off the ground.”
“I’ve received numerous emails and DMs on Twitter about patient experiences … and I hear from people every day who are better off getting the vaccine,” she said. “From my point of view, it looks encouraging.”
–CNBC’s Noah Higgins-Dunn contributed to this report.