COVID a 'Cruel' Chronic Condition for Some Long Haulers, Says NIH Director Francis Collins

People suffering from persistent COVID-19 symptoms months after the virus has left their body may face "chronic long-term consequences," the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has warned.

While most people who have recovered from the acute illness caused by COVID-19 have returned to normal health, some have reported experiencing symptoms for weeks or months afterwards, a condition that has become known as 'long COVID,' or post-acute sequelae of SARS-CoV-2 infection (PASC).

"I fear that some people who have had these effects who are already three or four months out may not be on a path to get better in a few more months, and this could be something that becomes a chronic illness," Dr. Francis Collins told NBC Nightly News on Monday.

"And that's a kind of frightening thing to contemplate, when you consider we know 28 million people in the United States have had COVID.

"If even 1 percent of them have chronic long-term consequences, that's a whole lot of people, and we need to find out everything we can about how to help them."

In February, the NIH received $1.15 billion in funding over the course of four years to investigate PASC, and try to find out how common it is, who is most likely to be affected, and whether or not these symptoms eventually subside.

Common symptoms amongst people with long COVID include fatigue, shortness of breath, intermittent fever, heart palpitations, and difficulties with concentration, also known as brain fog.

An array of serious potential long-term effects have also been reported, including dementia and cardiovascular, respiratory, renal, dermatologic, neurological, and psychiatric issues.

"We certainly are going to have to follow people for months, and maybe years," Dr. Collins said.

"I want to understand how this virus causes an illness that you don't get better from, the way you're supposed to.

"What is it? Have you done harm to the body by some sort of blood clotting problem, by an immune system that's gone haywire? We really don't know."

PASC can affect both people who have experienced a serious illness caused by COVID-19, and those who only had a mild illness.

"My heart goes out to the people who are going through this. This has been already such a difficult experience but you kind of thought if I get through this then that's it," Dr. Collins added.

"And to find out for some people that's not it. That is cruel, that is just one more heartbreak that we didn't see coming. I promise you we are all-in on this. There will be no stones left unturned. We're going to figure it out."

National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins
Dr. Francis Collins speaks ahead of US Vice President Kamala Harris receiving her second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at the NIH, in Bethesda, Maryland, on January 26, 2021. Dr. Collins fears that COVID symptoms may be chronic for some long-haulers. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images