New study pinpoints key markers for Long COVID diagnosis

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In a recent preprint* uploaded to the medRxiv server, an international team of researchers conducted a large-scale systems-level immunological screening of more than 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 patients to identify diagnostic markers of Long-term COVID-19. The analyses using multiple orthogonal detection methods reveal elevated serologic responses as a highlight of Long COVID and that its correlated memory CD8+ T cell clonal expansion is a more reliable and sensitive marker of the condition than conventional antigen (SARS-CoV-2 RNA and protein) detection approaches.

Study: Restrained memory CD8+ T cell responses favors viral persistence and elevated IgG responses in patients with severe Long COVID. Image Credit: Lightspring / ShutterstockStudy: Restrained memory CD8+ T cell responses favors viral persistence and elevated IgG responses in patients with severe Long COVID. Image Credit: Lightspring / Shutterstock

*Important notice: medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

COVID-19 and the need for Long COVID diagnosis

The ongoing Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) caused Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) viral pandemic is one of the worst in human memory, estimated to have infected more than 700 million individuals since its discovery in Wuhan, China, in late 2019. While global legislative policy and the widespread development and dissemination of anti-COVID-19 vaccines have substantially reduced the disease burden, with reports of vaccination efforts saving 70% of patients or more, survivors of the pandemic are plagued by a hitherto unknown condition – Long COVID.

Also called the ‘Post COVID-19 condition’, ‘chronic COVID syndrome,’ and clinically, ‘post-acute sequelae of COVID-19 (PASC)’, Long COVID presents itself as perhaps the worst legacy of the pandemic. The now well-established yet poorly understood condition is characterized by the persistence or development of COVID-19-associated symptoms that may persist for months or even years following initial infection recovery. These symptoms include severe cognitive decline (brain fog), chronic fatigue, and multiple organ damage, resulting in significant economic and quality of life (QoL) losses in patients.

Alarmingly, research has revealed that despite vaccination efforts substantially reducing adverse Long COVID outcomes, between 30 and 60% of all COVID-19 infections result in Long COVID, with an estimated 350+ million individuals suffering from the condition. Unfortunately, extensive global scientific efforts remain unable to elucidate the mechanisms underpinning Long COVID, hampering the development of diagnostic assays and clinical interventions for patients.

About the study

In the present study, researchers screened more than 1000 prospective patients enrolled at Long COVID clinics in Belgium and Sweden to elucidate the shared mechanisms of Long COVID pathology and subsequently develop a sensitive and reliable diagnostic test for the condition. Only subjects with a clinically confirmed mild or moderate COVID-19 infection were included. Severe cases were excluded due to overlapping symptoms with those of the post-intensive care syndrome.

Patients without objective measures of disease-associated organ damage (e.g., magnetic resonance imaging [MRI], pulsatile arterial tonometry [EndoPAT], and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome [POTS]) were excluded. Inclusion and exclusion criteria resulted in a final sample cohort of 121 patients from Belgium (n = 31) and Sweden (n = 90).

Experimental procedures included the enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) for detecting and measuring patients’ antibody responses against SARS-CoV-2. Since these standard ELISAs were not observed to elucidate differences in immunoglobulin A (IgA) and IgM despite clear case-convalescent control differences in IgG titers, single-molecule array (SIMOA) assays were employed. The SPEAR immunoassay was used to detect the presence of persistent SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins in patients’ plasma samples.

Since these assays revealed that antigen responses were only depicted by about 10% of the study cohort, suggesting its unreliability and poor sensitivity as a diagnostic tool, researchers used a 51-parameter-panel mass cytometry assay to investigate possible immunological correlates. The Olinks assay was further conducted to measure levels of cytokines and other plasma proteins in patients’ plasma samples.

Autoantibodies to type-I IFN have been associated with life-threatening COVID-19 pneumonia due to impaired IFN-I-mediated inhibition of viral replication. Such autoantibodies increase in frequency with age, are more common in males than females for unknown reason, and could explain up to 20% of COVID-19 deaths. The reasons for the development of anti-cytokine autoantibodies are unknown in most cases, but most, if not all, patients with inborn errors of central tolerance due to AIRE deficiency in cis (APECED or APS1) or in trans (mutations of the alternative NF-kB pathway) all carry these autoantibodies and are highly susceptible to severe SARSCoV-2 infections.”

To investigate the above, single-cell T-cell receptor (TCR) and message RNA (mRNA) sequencing of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMCs) was carried out. Memory CD8 T cell TCR sequences were then clustered using the GLIPH methodology.

Study findings

The present study reveals that, while IgG response to SARS-CoV-2 spike (receptor binding domain [RDB]) proteins as measured by the SIMAO assay can be used as a sensitive Long COVID marker, IgA and IgM cannot due to their detection in ~10% of afflicted patients. This suggests that memory CD8+ T cells were restrained, and their clonal expansion is restricted by SARS-CoV-2, inconsistent with the previously hypothesized exhausted phenotype pathology.

Strong and persistent Long COVID symptoms despite high IgG tirtes suggest differences between the initial and long-term adaptive responses of patients’ immunity to SARS-CoV-2.

“A strong initial adaptive response might increase the chance of viral clearance and reduce the risk of Long COVID, while a sustained and elevated long-term response to SARSCoV-2 with elevated titers occur once a viral reservoir has been established leading to chronic antigen stimulation.”

Results highlight that in Long COVID cases, the elevated serologic response was inversely correlated to expanding CD8+ T cell populations, elucidating the role of the restrained antiviral T cell response as a crucial component of Long COVID pathology. Current and future work aimed at understanding the genetic basis of this revelation may allow for the development of clinical therapeutics capable of treating this hitherto incurable condition.

Conclusions

The present study uses a combination of ELISA, SIMOA, and sequencing assays to investigate the associations between circulating immunoglobulin titers and Long COVID pathology, with the dual aim of elucidating Long COVID’s mechanism of action and progressing the discovery of a universal Long COVID diagnostic test. Their findings reveal that contrary to expectation, IgG titers in Long COVID patients increase following initial infection recovery, suggesting chronic antigen stimulation.

IgA and IgM titers, in contrast, were extremely low and detectable in only 10% of cases, making them unreliable in Long COVID diagnosis.

*Important notice: medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports that are not peer-reviewed and, therefore, should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behavior, or treated as established information.

Journal reference:
  • Preliminary scientific report. Lucie Rodriguez, Ziyang Tan, Lakshmi Kanth Tadepally, Jun Wang, Hugo Barcenilla, Zoe Swank, Fanglei Zuo, Hassan Abolhassani, Ana Jimena Pavlovitch-Bedzyk, Chunlin Wang, Laura Gonzalez, Constantin Habimana Mugabo, Anette Johnsson, Yang Chen, Anna James, Jaromir Mikes, Linn Kleberg, Christopher Sundling, Mikael Bjornson, Malin Nygren-Bonnier, Marcus Stahlberg, MIchael Runold, Sofia Bjorkander, Erik Melen, Isabelle Meyts, Johan Van Weyenbergh, Qiang Pan Hammarstrom, Mark M Davis, David R. Walt, Nils Landegren, COVID Human Genetic Effort, Alessandro Aiuti, Giorgio Casari, Jean-Laurent Casanova, MARC JAMOULLE, Judith Bruchfeld, Petter Brodin. Restrained memory CD8+ T cell responses favors viral persistence and elevated IgG responses in patients with severe Long COVID. medRxiv (2024), DOI – 10.1101/2024.02.11.24302636, https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2024.02.11.24302636v1
Hugo Francisco de Souza

Written by

Hugo Francisco de Souza

Hugo Francisco de Souza is a scientific writer based in Bangalore, Karnataka, India. His academic passions lie in biogeography, evolutionary biology, and herpetology. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. from the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science, where he studies the origins, dispersal, and speciation of wetland-associated snakes. Hugo has received, amongst others, the DST-INSPIRE fellowship for his doctoral research and the Gold Medal from Pondicherry University for academic excellence during his Masters. His research has been published in high-impact peer-reviewed journals, including PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases and Systematic Biology. When not working or writing, Hugo can be found consuming copious amounts of anime and manga, composing and making music with his bass guitar, shredding trails on his MTB, playing video games (he prefers the term ‘gaming’), or tinkering with all things tech.

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Comments

  1. Hnb Hnb India says:

    Even after 2 years, symptoms I still have:

    1. Lightheadedness for a while when I stand up.
    2. Pins and needles in legs and burning sensation on soles which go away when I walk.
    3. Nose block now and then.
    4. Brain fog off and on.
    5. Stomach discomfort comes and goes.
    6. Joint and muscle pain when I get up from sitting or lying position-often.
    7. Tinnitus with reduced hearing
    8. Post nasal drips now and then
    9. Mucus forms in stomach, nose and throat but not continuous.
    10. Lower back pain at times while lying down.
    11. Feverish feeling at times.
    12. Chest region stiffness but not always.
    13. Symptoms of brain fog and pins and needles cause fear when worse.
    14. Frequent urination.
    15. Some smell like nicil powder I get in different places and at times  same weird chemical taste in different food.
    I had both the vaccines before covid attack and third booster one 3 months after covid attack.
    My D3 was very low but without verification,  Dr gave me B12 injections too - about 7 injections and D3 supplements which proves that covid eats away our vital vitamins too.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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