Does vaccination really reduce long Covid risk and ease symptoms? Evidence is still fuzzy

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Illustration of a vaccine shown in four glass vials, along with a syringe, in isometric view. A limited color palette is derived from primary colors.
Illustration of a vaccine shown in four glass vials, along with a syringe, in isometric view. A limited color palette is derived from primary colors.
  • The long Covid burden is becoming increasingly apparent globally.
  • Some studies have suggested that vaccination can reduce long Covid risk and ease symptoms.
  • However, evidence at this stage isn't robust, and future studies could provide more clarity.

As parts of the world start to move on from the Covid-19 pandemic, the burden of long Covid is becoming increasingly evident. Data from the second half of 2021 suggest that more than 100 million people have or had the condition.

Long Covid is defined as experiencing symptoms more than three months from the onset of acute Covid infection, lasting for at least two months, the World Health Organization (WHO) explains.

Some of the most common symptoms include fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, loss of smell, and memory issues. For many people, these symptoms negatively affect their day-to-day functioning. In some cases, it can be life-threatening

But some studies have suggested that being fully vaccinated may protect against long Covid, while others have indicated that. for some long haulers, it helped ease their symptoms. On the other hand, reports also suggest that people can still experience long Covid after breakthrough infections, in which vaccinated individuals catch the virus.

We take a look at the current evidence and what it suggests.

Does vaccination reduce the risk of long Covid?

Covid vaccines help to reduce the risk of long Covid by lowering the chances of catching the virus in the first place. 

But for those who experience infection after vaccination, numerous studies suggest that vaccination might only halve the risk of long Covid, or may not have any impact at all. 

A “rapid evidence briefing”, which drew together data from 15 UK and international studies, found that individuals who received one or two doses of vaccine and caught Covid were only about half as likely to develop long Covid, compared with unvaccinated individuals.

However, partially vaccinated individuals were as likely to have symptoms lasting four weeks or more as unvaccinated individuals. 

A US-based study, which is included in the analysis above and involved researchers analysing the records of nearly 34 000 people who experienced breakthrough infections, showed the shots had only a slight protective effect – 15% overall – against long Covid. The study, based on medical records, is believed to be the largest peer-reviewed analysis in the US on long Covid, The Washington Post reported.

Importantly, however, many people with mild or asymptomatic infections might not test for Covid, so it’s hard to determine how well vaccination protects against long Covid in breakthrough infections, immunologist Petter Brodin at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, told Nature. “Doing any kind of assessment of how many people develop long-term symptoms after they are vaccinated is going to be incredibly difficult,” he said. “We will miss so many people.”

Does vaccination ease long Covid symptoms? 

Both anecdotes and studies suggest that vaccination might help to reduce long Covid symptoms in those who already have the condition.

In October last year, the UK Office for National Statistics reported that receiving one shot of a Covid vaccine was associated with a 13% decrease in self-reported long Covid symptoms among individuals who already had the condition. This increased with the second dose received.

In the rapid evidence briefing report, the authors write: “There is also evidence that unvaccinated people with long Covid who were subsequently vaccinated had, on average, reduced long Covid symptoms, or fewer long Covid symptoms than those who remained unvaccinated.”

There were, however, some people who reported worsened symptoms after vaccination, the report added.

A survey by Survivor Corps, a non-profit that provides emotional support to Covid survivors, revealed that about 40% of respondents with long Covid reported an improvement in their symptoms after vaccination, but that another 14% said that their symptoms had worsened.

So, while the data overwhelmingly confirm that Covid vaccination greatly reduces the risk of death or serious illness, more research is needed to understand how well it protects against long Covid. 

It also remains to be seen how different variants may affect a person’s risk of long Covid, with one study already suggesting that among vaccinated individuals, those infected with Omicron’s BA.1 were nearly 50% less likely to report long Covid symptoms, compared to vaccinated individuals who were infected with the Delta variant.

As vaccination rollouts continue, researchers will be able to gather more data and gain a better sense of how the vaccines and variants play a role in long Covid and its severity.

READ | Researchers looked at long Covid risk, based on analysis of Delta, Omicron BA.1 and BA.2

READ | Haven’t had Covid-19 yet? It could be more than just luck

READ | Living with long Covid: Losing your sense of smell can be dangerous – 'I worry about my unborn baby'

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