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Vaccines offer modest protection against long COVID, new study finds

  • A new study finds that being vaccinated against COVID-19 does not fully protect you against long COVID.
  • One study looked at data from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
  • They found that vaccinated people were only 15% less likely to get long COVID than unvaccinated people.

Although vaccination remains our best defense against the most serious consequences of COVID-19, a long COVID is still possible if you experience a breakthrough infection.

New to research from the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and the Veterans Affairs St. Louis Health Care System finds that even vaccinated people with mild infections can experience potentially debilitating symptoms.

For this study published today in natural medicineresearchers analyzed the medical records of more than 13 million veterans stored in a database of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

They analyzed data from 113,474 unvaccinated COVID-19 patients and nearly 34,000 fully vaccinated patients who experienced breakthrough infections with COVID-19 from January 1 to October 31, 2021.

Patients were considered fully immunized if they received two doses of Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or one dose of Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

Although the patients were mostly older white men, the researchers also analyzed data from nearly 1.5 million women and adults of all ages and races.

The team looked at how people with breakthrough infections were doing six months after their diagnosis.

The researchers found that those vaccinated were approximately 15 percent less likely to develop long COVID than unvaccinated people.

The study results also indicated that the long-term risk of COVID was 17% higher in vaccinated immunocompromised individuals with breakthrough infections compared to previously healthy vaccinated individuals.

The researchers also compared long-term health outcomes with a pre-pandemic control group of nearly 6 million people who never had COVID-19.

They found that people with breakthrough infections had a significantly higher risk of death, major organ disease, and neurological disorders.

Additionally, vaccinated people hospitalized with breakthrough infections had a 2.5 times higher risk of death than those hospitalized with the flu.

People hospitalized with breakthrough infections also had a 27% higher risk of long COVID 30 days after diagnosis.

The study was conducted before the rise of Omicron, which affected a significant number of Americans. Moreover, it was conducted before new COVID-19 antivirals, including Pfizer’s Paxlovid, became widely available. It is therefore possible that the current results of the long-term risk of COVID for vaccinated people are different.

First author Ziyad Al-AlyMD, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Washington, told Healthline the research team had two goals:

  • To determine if the condition can occur in people with breakthrough infections
  • Find out if and how much vaccination could reduce the risk of COVID in the long term

“Essentially, we wanted to know if vaccines can protect us from long COVID and what protection is conferred by vaccination,” he said.

Asked about the findings, Al-Aly expressed disappointment.

“We hoped to see that vaccines would be protective,” he said. “But alas, the results showed us otherwise.”

Al-Aly said the findings suggest vaccines are an “imperfect shield”.

“They only modestly protect against the long COVID,” he explained. “And that reliance on them as the only layer of protection is not optimal.”

According to Al-Aly, urgent research is needed to develop “additional layers of protection”, such as other types of vaccines or drugs that could help mitigate the long-term consequences of COVID.

According to Robert LahitaMD, director of the Institute of Autoimmune and Rheumatic Diseases at Saint Joseph Health and author of “Strong immunitya breakthrough infection means that the virus can escape our immune response.

“Viruses are very resilient and robust,” he said. “They are constantly shifting up and down.”

Lahita pointed out that COVID vaccines provide enough adaptive immunity to protect most people from severe infection for long periods of time.

“The innate immune response is present in everyone, but again it varies from individual to individual,” he said.

Another recent study found that the neurological effects of long COVID can persist for more than a year.

The small 52-person study found that 85% of patients with mild COVID reported at least four lasting neurological problems at least six weeks after an acute infection. About 80% of the participants were vaccinated.

They reported that the symptoms persisted for an average of 15 months, and although most saw improvements in cognitive function and fatigue, the symptoms did not completely resolve and continued to affect their quality of life.

“Long COVID has a variety of symptoms, and everyone has a different presentation,” said Natalia Covarrubias-EckardtMD, medical director of inpatient rehabilitation and the post-COVID rehabilitation program at Providence St. Jude Medical Center in Orange County, Calif.

She said the most common symptoms are fatigue, headaches, difficulty thinking or concentrating, shortness of breath, anxiety and depression.

Covarrubias-Eckardt said there are ways to treat the symptoms of long COVID and most people recover.

“For patients who suffer from fatigue, for example, we teach them stimulation and gradually increase their tolerance for activity,” she explained. “For those who have difficulty thinking or concentrating, we have therapists trained in cognitive recovery with various exercises and supportive treatments.”

Covarrubias-Eckardt noted that there are no specific drugs to treat it at present.

However, she stressed that it is important for patients with persistent symptoms to ensure that there is no other diagnosis causing their symptoms.

New research reveals that vaccinated people who experience even mild infectious breakthroughs can experience long COVID.

Experts say that while vaccination offers strong protection for most people, the virus challenges it by constantly mutating.