Australia’s Chief Health Officer Calls for the Term ‘Long COVID’ to Be Scrapped

‘It implies that there is something particularly sinister and ominous about COVID-19,’ Dr. Gerrard said.
Australia’s Chief Health Officer Calls for the Term ‘Long COVID’ to Be Scrapped
A new study has demonstrated that Long COVID can resolve over time. (Shutterstock)
Henry Jom

One of Australia’s top doctors is calling for the term “long COVID” to be scrapped following a study that found the long-term effects of the virus was no different to the seasonal flu.

In a statement on March 15, Queensland’s Chief Health Officer John Gerrard said the term “long COVID” wrongly implied that long-term COVID symptoms were “somehow unique and exceptional” to other viral infections.

“We believe it is time to stop using terms like ‘long COVID,’” Dr. Gerrard said.

“It causes unnecessary fear. It implies that there is something particularly sinister and ominous about COVID-19.”

Long COVID is described as symptoms that last more than three months following a COVID-19 infection, with people experiencing symptoms such as extreme fatigue, shortness of breath, joint and muscle pain, and heart palpitations, according to the Australian government’s Health Direct website.
Dr. Gerrard, an infectious diseases expert, said a study involving more than 5,000 Australians found “no evidence” that those who tested positive for COVID-19 were more likely to develop functional limitations, than those who tested negative for COVID-19 a year after their diagnosis.

The results were similar for symptomatic adults who had influenza.

Additionally, 3 percent of the COVID-19-positive participants said they had a moderate-to-severe functional impairment, compared with 4.1 percent of the non-COVID participants.

“In health systems with highly vaccinated populations, long-COVID may have appeared to be a distinct and severe illness because of high volumes of COVID-19 cases during the pandemic. However, we found that the rates of ongoing symptoms and functional impairment are indistinguishable from other post-viral illnesses,” Dr. Gerrard said.

“These findings underscore the importance of comparing post-COVID-19 outcomes with those following other respiratory infections, and of further research into post-viral syndromes.”

Dr. Gerrard will present the Queensland Health study at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Barcelona, Spain, in April.

The study in question was conducted by Queensland Health, which surveyed 5,112 symptomatic Australians aged 18 and over who, between May 29 and June 25, 2022, had symptoms such as fatigue, brain fog, cough, shortness of breath, changes in smell and taste, dizziness, and a rapid or irregular heartbeat.

Of these participants, 2,399 adults tested positive for COVID-19, 995 tested positive for influenza, and 1,718 tested negative for both COVID-19 and influenza but were symptomatic. The participants were asked about their symptoms a year later, in May and June 2023.

Not All Experts On Board With Scrapping ‘Long COVID’

Professor Philip Britton, a paediatric infectious diseases physician from the University of Sydney, and a member of the Long COVID Australia Collaboration, welcomed the results of the study but is cautious about banning the term “long COVID.”
“There are likely reasons why persistent symptoms following COVID in this Queensland cohort may be no more frequent than following other viruses including the predominantly vaccinated cohort and the high frequency of Omicron variants,” Mr. Britton said.

“These factors are acknowledged by the authors.

“It is because of these specific factors as well as inherent limitations of the study methodology itself, that their conclusion that it is ‘time to stop using terms like ‘long COVID’' is overstated and potentially unhelpful,“ he said, while adding that long COVID has been a ”global phenomenon, recognised by WHO.”

The study’s authors did note several limitations to their study, including the risks of long COVID being lower during the Omicron wave compared with other COVID-19 variants, and that 90 percent of people in the state of Queensland were vaccinated when Omicron emerged.

The authors also noted that the lower severity of long COVID could be due to vaccination or the variant.

“Studies like this are reassuring that most people will recover from COVID without long-term effects and further, with vaccination and viral evolution, the number of people who experience Long COVID will likely reduce with time,” Mr. Britton said.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Nicholson, a professor of medicine at Murdoch University, said the study is “observational,” based on reported symptoms with no “physiological or detailed functional follow-up data.”

“The absence of evidence is different from the evidence of absence, so the authors’ assertion that long COVID is the same as flu-related post-viral syndrome, is not proven, even if long COVID is indeed a post-viral syndrome (which it is),” Mr. Nicholson said.

Mr. Nicholson added that many long-term effects of COVID-19 do not have significant early-stage symptoms, such as heart disease, atherosclerosis, and diabetes.

Former federal deputy chief medical officer, Dr. Nick Coatsworth, who led Australia’s response to the COVID pandemic, had another point of view.

“In my view, it’s illogical to say that the existence of long Covid should be disproved, rather the burden is on the scientific community to prove that it exists as an independent condition to other post-viral syndromes,” he wrote on Twitter.

Mr. Gerrard said he was not questioning the validity of long COVID, saying that post-viral syndromes “do occur.”

“We see it with Ross River virus. Clearly, we see it with influenza as well,” he said.

“A severe viral infection can be quite a significant inflammatory insult and, in some people, that clearly can cause persistent symptoms. But in the vast majority of people, recovery is the norm.”

Study Adds to Previous Research

The study adds to previous research published by BMJ Public Health (pdf) by the same authors that found no difference in ongoing symptoms and functional impairment between COVID-19 and influenza symptoms 12 weeks post-infection.

According to the authors, rates of long COVID in Australia are low due to high vaccination rates upon the easing of COVID restrictions, and the population’s subsequent exposure to the Omicron variant.

“We may well have found a different result in an un-immunised population, prior to the arrival of the Omicron variant,” Mr. Gerrard said.

“What they described in the UK with long COVID in the early days, we know their experience of COVID was completely different to our experience.”

Henry Jom is a reporter for The Epoch Times, Australia, covering a range of topics, including medicolegal, health, political, and business-related issues. He has a background in the rehabilitation sciences and is currently completing a postgraduate degree in law. Henry can be contacted at [email protected]
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