‘Persistent’ COVID infections may be creating new variants, study says. What to know

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some people infected with the virus don’t experience any symptoms. Others have to fight for their life.

While some patients battle the illness over a couple of days, many more are now experiencing infections that drag on and on.

Longer COVID-19 infections may be more than just draining on your health — they may be providing a home for new variants, a new study says.

Here’s what you need to know.

‘One to three in every 100’

Researchers from the University of Oxford analyzed data from more than 90,000 participants in the U.K. between November 2020 and August 2022, according to a study published in the journal Nature on Feb. 21.

All the participants were tested for COVID-19 using a PCR test once a week for four weeks, the study said.

From the participants, the researchers identified 3,603 people who tested positive for COVID-19 two or more times, 381 of whom tested positive for more than a month. Of those consistently testing positive, 54 people had the same infection for more than two months, the researchers said.

They found that “persistent” COVID-19 infections, or ones lasting more than one month, were “surprisingly common,” and “one to three in every 100 infections (lasted) a month or longer,” according to a news release.

In some of the cases, participants tested positive for COVID-19 variants that had “gone extinct” in the rest of the population and were holding on to the virus for an extended period of time.

“It has long been thought that prolonged COVID-19 infections in immunocompromised individuals may have been the source of the multiple new variants that arose during the coronavirus pandemic and seeded successive waves of infection, including the Alpha and Omicron variants,” the new release said. “But until now, the prevalence of persistent COVID-19 infections in the general population and how the virus evolves in these situations remained unknown.”

‘Seed new variants of concern’

In the study, 65 of 381 people with persistent COVID-19 infections tested positive in PCR tests more than three times, the researchers said.

Those participants also had signs of “viral dynamics,” the study said, meaning the ways that viruses replicate and change once inside a host. The participants experienced “high, then low, then high viral load dynamics,” according to the release.

The amount of genetic material of a virus found in the blood, or the viral load, typically increases when the virus is progressing or growing, News Medical reports.

Some of the study participants saw their viral load increasing as their infection continued past one month, suggesting the virus was not being suppressed but was thriving and “actively (replicating) during prolonged infections,” the researchers said.

“Certain individuals showed an extremely high number of mutations, including mutations that define new coronavirus variants, alter target sites for monoclonal antibodies, and introduce changes to the coronavirus spike protein,” according to the release.

The study suggests those with lingering infections “could act as reservoirs to seed new variants of concern.”

The researchers said those experiencing persistent COVID-19 infections or even long COVID may be providing a safe place for the virus to grow and change, and then reinfecting others with new and emerging variants.

Isolation changes expected

The data was published as there are growing concerns that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be changing its recommendations to reduce isolation time for those who test positive for COVID-19.

On Feb. 13, The Washington Post reported plans to change isolation recommendations from five days to just 24 hours if you don’t have a fever, citing unnamed officials in the CDC.

“Public health has to be realistic,” Michael T. Osterholm, an infectious disease expert from the University of Minnesota, told The Post. “In making recommendations to the public today, we have to try to get the most out of what people are willing to do. … You can be absolutely right in the science and yet accomplish nothing because no one will listen to you.”

Long COVID activists, including a group that crashed a Senate hearing in January, said a change to the official isolation recommendations would only prolong COVID-19 infections and increase the number of people with long COVID.

“(The) CDC’s shift in policy to a single day of isolation would be an act of official misconduct that would promote infection and the development of long COVID,” the Long Covid Action Project told McClatchy News in an email.

A report from the CDC on Feb. 15 found 7% of U.S. adults reported experiencing long COVID symptoms in 2022, about 18 million people.

The University of Oxford researchers noted in their study that persistent COVID-19 infections, carried on by viral reservoirs, may be contributing to long COVID as well.

“In the study, people with persistent infections were 55% more likely to report having Long-COVID symptoms more than 12 weeks since the start of the infection than people with more typical infections,” the release said.

An official statement from the CDC about isolation changes has not been made as of Feb. 22.

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