Long COVID brings another huge challenge to science

In the fall of 2020, the world was staggering under the attack of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. In the United States, more than 4 million cases were reported in November, more than double the number in October. Hospitals were overwhelmed. On the Thursday before Thanksgiving, 1,962 people died.

Now, despite more than 1 million deaths in the United States and more than 6 million worldwide, it’s almost easy to forget that the pandemic’s assault continues. That is, until you hear Belinda Hankins’ story.

Hankins has been diagnosed with long COVID, a collection of symptoms that can include crushing fatigue, brain fog, pain and dizziness and that may affect 1 in 5 people infected with SARS-CoV-2, according to one conservative estimate. She talked with Science News staff writer Meghan Rosen during her appointment at the long COVID clinic at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

“For months we’ve heard estimates about how many people have long COVID,” Rosen told me. “I was interested in going beyond the stats to find out what it’s like for the patients and doctors living with this.”

That effort involved talking with doctors who are trying to figure out how to treat the symptoms of long COVID when the cause is still unknown. And talking with Hankins. “I thought it was extraordinary that [she] let me into her appointment,” Rosen said. “It’s just so generous and so brave.”

I share Rosen’s gratitude. Asking someone in the midst of a life-altering illness to talk with a journalist is a big request. I always worry that people might feel pressure to participate, and I want to be sure that they’ve had time to think through the implications of going public with personal information. Hankins was clear about why she said yes. “She wanted to share her story because a lot of people in her life don’t know what long COVID is and why she’s still so sick,” Rosen said.

In reporting, Rosen brings both her empathy and her serious science chops. She has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and molecular biology and is a graduate of the science journalism program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She explored careers in biotech but decided that wasn’t the right fit. She wanted to write about health and medicine.

This is actually Rosen’s third stint at Science News: first as an intern, then as a reporter, and now back on the beat after five years of doing communications work for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. We’re glad she’s back. Not only is she tackling complex issues surrounding COVID-19, including how U.S. public health guidelines affect kids in school (SN Online: 8/19/22), she’s also been sharing her delight in science. That includes stories on genetic variants linked to uncombable hair in children (SN: 10/8/22 & 10/22/22, p. 5); an unusual “snough” call that zoo gorillas appear to have invented to get zookeepers’ attention (SN Online: 8/10/22); and a new robotic pill designed to deliver drugs by scrubbing away mucus in the intestines.

Yes, science is serious and important, but it’s also crazy fun. I don’t think I’m ready to sign up for the robotic intestinal scrub brush, but I sure do enjoy finding out about it.

Nancy Shute is editor in chief of Science News Media Group. Previously, she was an editor at NPR and US News & World Report, and a contributor to National Geographic and Scientific American. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers.