Why some folks who recovered from Covid keep testing positive

At some point during the pandemic, the good folks who comb through Covid tests noticed that a certain number of people who’d recovered from Covid kept testing positive, although further testing couldn’t find any live virus in their systems. Now a study offers us a theory about why that might be happening.

But before we go on, remember that this is a theory. Repeat after me: It’s a theory, it’s a theory, it’s a theory.

Ready? In simplified form, since that’s as much of it as I can handle, bits of Covid’s genetic sequence can embed themselves in human DNA, getting there by a process called reverse transcription. Don’t worry about what it’s called, though. I only mention it so it’ll have a name and we can call it when lunch is ready.

Irrelevant photo: Daffodils by a stream. Photo by Ida Swearingen.

Before you come unglued about the idea of Covid embedding itself in your DNA, understand that it doesn’t mean Bill Gates is embedding himself so he can send you instructions to buy his latest product or divorce your–or his–wife. Something like 8% of our DNA is made up of sequence fragments left there by ancient viruses. That sounds eek-ish, but they do nothing more than sit around looking ancient. And if you know how to read them, interesting. They’re not responsible for diseases or divorces or anything else beginning with D.

Now if they were retroviruses, they’d use a position in our DNA to replicate and make us sick, but Covid isn’t caused by a retrovirus, so if it’s there, it’s doing nothing.

Take a deep breath. The situation isn’t any worse than it was a minute ago. 

From there on everything gets complicated, but I did escape away with this much information: 1, It’s not yet clear how common reverse transcription is with Covid; 2, if it’s happening at all, it might mean that some Covid immunity gets integrated at the cellular level (that would cause a good thing); and 3, it might also be responsible for the autoimmune responses that show up in long Covid (that would cause a bad one).

Warning: The study’s still controversial, with some scientists yelling–in a more academically appropriate way–”This is bullshit and it’s feeding into people’s fears.” Make of it what you will. I suggest tucking a sprig or two into your hat and waiting to see what it’s done in a month or six.

 

Covid and evolution

You’ve probably heard people say Covid will become less deadly over time. Didn’t the plague? Didn’t, after the Spanish flu epidemic, the flu?

Mmm, well, maybe. There are two problems with the argument. The first and biggest is that evolution’s random, driven by a combination of pure dumb chance and the pressures put on it by outside circumstances. So as any given disease evolves, it could become milder and it could become more deadly. Or could become neither and change in other ways–ones we care about less.

But that’s old news. The second problem with the argument is newer and more interesting. A group of necrophiliacs–

Sorry, a group of scientists studied the bodies of 36 sixteenth-century bubonic plague victims and compared their immune markers with those of people living in the area today. The modern residents showed a greater genetic resistance to the plague than the sixteenth-century bodies did.

“This suggests these markers might have evolved to resist the plague,” said Paul Norman of the Colorado School of Medicine. 

Because it’s not only diseases that evolve: So do we. And if the study’s correct, so did we. Or at least so did the people of that particular town.

If you want to get whacked with the full scientific verbiage, the article says, “Among the current inhabitants, the team found evidence that a pathogen, likely Yersinia pestis which causes bubonic plague, prompted changes in the allele distribution for two innate pattern-recognition receptors and four Human Leukocyte Antigen molecules, which help initiate and direct immune response to infection.”

Got it?

Me neither. That’s why quotation marks were invented.

The good news here is that humanity can adapt to massive medical threats. The bad news is that, even if some of us have genes that will protect us against Covid, we can’t know in advance who’s got ‘em and who doesn’t. And for those genes to spread through the population would take I’m not sure how many generations and many deaths, which would unsentimentally eliminate those of us who don’t have ‘em. 

In short, if you can get vaccinated, do. 

 

Does vaccination either stop or slow the spread of Covid?

A study that followed vaccinated and unvaccinated hospital employees found that vaccination dramatically reduces asymptomatic Covid infections. In fact, the change was enough that a pretty dry writeup of the study used the word dramatically. The word didn’t wander into this paragraph because I was struggling to keep us all awake.

So what? So it means that vaccinated people will be dramatically less likely to pass on infections. If you don’t get them, you can’t give them. 

How dramatic a change are we talking about? A week after getting their second shot (or jab if you speak British), vaccinated people were 90% less likely than their unvaccinated co-workers to have asymptomatic Covid.

In that case, how soon will the pandemic be over? 

Um, yeah.

A group of infectious disease modelers at Northwestern University are playing with the numbers and trying to figure that out for the U.S. alone. Their projections are lining up nicely with the numbers reported from the real world, so they’re worth listening to. Basically, the number of Covid deaths and the number of severe cases are going down. That’s the vaccination program at work. 

Rochelle Walensky, of the Centers for Disease Control, said, “The models forecasted some really good news, and an important reminder. The reality is it all depends on the actions we take now.”

Basically, she says, controlling the pandemic depends on people getting vaccinated–quickly.

Is forecasted a real word? Yup. To forecast has two past tenses, depending on what mood it’s in when it gets out of bed. Forecast is one and forecasted is the other.

You can’t always forecast which mood it’ll be in. 

I didn’t know that either.

“The results remind us that we have the path out of this,” she said, “and models once projecting really grim news now offer reasons to be quite hopeful for what the summer may bring.”

But the modelers warn that this doesn’t mean all restrictions should be lifted at once. Surges are still possible, and new variants are a threat. 

They don’t specifically mention this, though, so I will: Until vaccines get to the rest of the world, no country is safe. 

Which leads me to this: As of May 6, 44% of the US population and 51% of the UK population had been vaccinated. Compare that to 9.4% in India, 4.4% in all of Asia, and below 1% in all of Africa. Which is an elaborate way of saying even the safest of us is a long way from safe. 

Appeals to our higher nature are fine, but the desire for self-preservation’s a powerful force and always worth a mention. 

 

Long Covid

Long Covid has a new name: Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS-CoV-2–or PASC to its friends. 

Why does it need all that? Because in my experience, when the medical community can’t cure something, they rename it. 

Since I’m claiming to have experience, I’d better cite my qualifications. I lost four years of my life to some sort of post-viral exhaustion that was so vaguely defined it had to be diagnosed by picking two symptoms from List A and three from List B. Or maybe it was one and four. Either way, I watched the syndrome go through two or three name changes before I stopped keeping track. 

The experience means that I’m more afraid of long Covid than I am of the severe form of the disease, although I won’t argue that we should all feel that way. 

I’d like to think the new name’s a sign that long Covid’s being taken seriously, and if the number of articles about it are a measure of seriousness it just might be, but being taken seriously isn’t the same as anyone knowing how to cure it. Or even knowing what causes it. 

Long Covid lands on people who had severe Covid and on people who had nothing more than a mild case. And this next bit is news to me: It also shows up in people who had asymptomatic cases. It can range from mild to debilitating to horrific. In one study, less than a third of people with long Covid had fully recovered five months after they left the hospital, although that’s a skewed study because it only follows people who were hospitalized. 

A different study found that nearly half the people hospitalized with Covid felt they hadn’t fully recovered after seven months. Either that study or a different one (forgive me, I get dizzy when I’m around numbers for long) says one person in ten will have Covid symptoms months after recovering from the disease itself. 

This is all still new territory. Expect the numbers to be contradictory. No one even has a fixed definition of long Covid, so you’ll find the game being played by different rules in different studies. And the playing field keeps changing size. In fact, some studies are working with cards and others are convinced it involves a ball. 

It’s not clear yet who’ll get long Covid. Working-age women are the most likely, but men can get it, old people can get it. Young adults and kids can get it. No one seems to have a demographic Get Out of Long Covid Free card. 

An article from Yale University says we are “facing the prospect of a chronic condition without diagnostics or therapeutics. We are facing a post-viral condition of potentially historic proportions and are almost completely in the dark about the underlying mechanism.”

It goes on to talk about lives that are changed overnight, about long Covid’s disproportionate impact on minority communities, and “a health care system that can offer no substantive assistance.” Not to mention long Covid’s “financial toxicity”–and since the article comes from the U.S., people’s loss of health insurance.

Yeah. It scares the hell out of me. 

37 thoughts on “Why some folks who recovered from Covid keep testing positive

  1. Who knew, when Rosalind Franklin and the other two worked out the beautiful double helix structure of DNA, that they’d missed off all these extra add on stringy bits that just got stuck to it like dodgy decorations?! That’s how my non-sciencey brain pictures it anyway!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Perfect image. You’ve got me thinking now of an artificial Christmas tree that gets put away with a few decorations no one noticed–one or two extras each year.

      I’ve never had an artificial tree, but most years when we take the tree down, at the last minute (in other words, once we put the boxes of decorations away) we find something in it that had gone invisible. I don’t know how they do that.

      Liked by 3 people

            • I’m an aetheist and in quite the wrong hemisphere for any such celebrations.
              But I do think this Covid will tail off eventually. The interim is a bloody worry though!
              Oh…nice daffodils by the stream. I now have Londonderry Air as my earworm.

              Liked by 1 person

              • I should’ve been more specific: I’m a Jewish atheist. A friend asked me to explain that once. The language still hasn’t recovered.

                How –. Oh. Summer’s in the meadow? Is that the connection between the daffs and Londonderry Air?

                Liked by 1 person

              • Blimey You want me to sing??? “To cull, at morn, the golden daffodillies, that come with Spring, to set the world aglow.”
                Someone will now tell us it’s “Danny Boy.”

                Liked by 1 person

              • I’d love it if you’d sing but if you’ve got too big a voice it’s not going to fit inside the comment box. Never mind. I never heard that verse before and so I turned to the great WikiPoodle, which came up with endless versions of the song. I had no idea.

                Liked by 1 person

  2. The Black Death is still with us. There are a few cases every year and there was at least one severe outbreak in the last century. The big change is that it can be treated. I think it’s antibiotics, but it’s some years since I read the book that mentions it, so I can’t be certain.

    Liked by 1 person

    • … and the effectiveness of antibiotics is decreasing over time (largely due to the over-zealous application of them in livestock). I suffer from recurring ear infections (long story, I won’t bore you with it) and I’m fairly sure that if nothing else kills me first, how I’ll die is from a resurgence of that infection that proves to be resistant to all known antibiotics.

      P.S. It was nice meeting you.

      Liked by 2 people

      • …and new antibiotics aren’t being developed because it’s not profitable–although for all we know all the antivirals being developed in the midst of the pandemic will accidentally turn up some way of saving our bacterialized hash. Let’s hope.

        And likewise.

        Like

  3. Loving it. Especially the comments. From the other Jewish Atheist in Cornwall, because I don’t think you can be Cornish unless your grandmother was born here, and we know ours weren’t. Hiking/ambling/strolling season opening up now. Perhaps a walk up your way soon. Love, Jane

    Liked by 1 person

    • Grandmother? I was told you had to go back four generations, and that’s not counting yourself. Either way, we’re a little late.

      I’ll lace my hiking boots on now so I’ll be ready for that walk.

      Like

  4. For me personally, any form of COVID scared me to death. But for my daughter and her fit, young, and healthy family, it was Long COVID which worried me. They all got it – including the new grandchild she was incubating – probably via the other less new grandchild who we lovingly refer to as the germ bug, who attends pre-school as my daughter is a key worker. At the time, it was thought (among those who gave it a thought) that Long COVID might be more common among those who had a less severe form of COVID. But with an increasing data set now available, not so much.

    My sympathies to you for your lost years. I hadn’t seen the correlation between the re-naming and the inability to tightly identify and/or cure, but now that you mention it… it was right there in front of me all the time. I’ll never be able to lose that cynicism now, but am grateful for the lesson. No, really, I am.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maybe we need a new slogan: Beware of diseases with more than one name.

      How bad has long Covid been for your daughter and her family? So much of the way schooling is being handled–at least in Britain–is just irresponsible. Kids are little germ factories. They can’t help it. And at this point they can’t say that they don’t know how the disease is spread or that kids (and their teachers, and their families) are immune.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sorry, I wasn’t clear (at all). It was COVID they all got, and it becoming Long COVID was what I was afraid of for them. Fortunately, there’ve been no signs that my fear came to pass, proving that I may have a tendency to catastrophize.

        But I agree about schooling in that – all the way from primary level to university – it’s been an absolute disaster. It’s why I’ve stayed clear of all family until post double vaccinated (both Himself & me).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I think there were cases of long-term medical problems after the Spanish flu, but I’m not sure that any studies were done – there weren’t the organised health services then, and a lot of the medical care existing would have been taken up in caring for those injured in the Great War.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Covid isn’t flu. If it was we would have stamped it out already. Note: there was pretty much no flu season this year as all those lockdowns and social distancing work against flu. Four years with post-viral fatigue sounds utterly horrendous. I once had it for 3 months after a virus and that was bad enough! I have lots of sympathy for ME/Post viral/Long covid sufferers.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Post Spanish-flu there was Encephalitis lethargica, and post-encephalitic Parkinson’s, which either were or weren’t caused by the Spanish Flu. And after that -decades after, there was L-dopa, Oliver Sacks and Awakenings, the book and then the movie. Here’s an article in case Ellen wants to work her magic with that bit of history.https://academic.oup.com/brain/article/140/8/2246/3970828 It must be said descriptions of long Covid are not much like those of either encephalitis lethargica or Parkinson’s.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank goodness Covid is not a retrovirus !

    It may be simplistic, but it seems like, maybe, the bodies of Plague victims would not have resistant antibodies – yet. Since they were plague victims.

    The folk crowd I once ran with said it was “London Derrierre”

    It is good to see this information. .but your advice to get the shot is probably the best.,

    Liked by 1 person

    • London Derriere? Well of course. Although I’ve been in London and didn’t notice any startling differences from the non-London sort, but then I’ll admit I wasn’t giving the subject any sort of deep thought. Maybe a better observer wouldn’t spotted something I missed.

      Y’know, a number of blog subscribers read this (if they read it at all, and lots of people follow blogs they never read) in their second or fourth language. Since some of us regularly tip right off the edge of the English language, I often wonder what they make of it.

      What interested me about the comparison to the plague victims was the reminder that not only does the virus mutate, but our resistance also does–although not in time to help the people who die of the plague du jour.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Your point about the differences in language is something that has fascinated me for years – even among British & American English. The old joke about the westerner visiting a Soviet factory and being told by the boss how efficiency and production were top goals., The Westerner asked what happened to a worker who fell short of goals. The boss’s translator said “He would be shot.” That pretty much cut things short, but as the visitor was leaving the translator raced after him and said “No No ! I was wrong – the worker would be FIRED!”

        Liked by 1 person

        • Mistranslations have always fascinated me too. Khruschev’s famous “We will dance on your grave” quote meant–or so I’ve read–more or less “We will outlive you.” My favorites, though, are the completely insane ones. Pepsi used to have a slogan “Come alive, you’re in the Pepsi generation.” I’m told they spent a lot of money putting signs up all over Taiwan that said “Pepsi Cola brings your ancestors back from the grave.”

          I don’t know if it’s true, but I sincerely hope it is.

          Like

  9. A friend and neighbour has Long COVID. It incapicitated her for many months. At present, she can walk, do a bit of work on her allotment and sometimes sew (she earns her living as a seamstress).

    Having also lost years to a chronic condition (due to a head injury) Long COVID scares me — and I’m more frightened for my adult sons than for myself.

    Do we know whether fully vaccinated people get Long COVID?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve been asking the same question and I haven’t found an answer yet. I do know that the odds decrease dramatically, since the odds of catching it decrease. Beyond that, I don’t know. I suspect the answers aren’t there yet. I wish I could reassure us both.

      Like

  10. First, my appreciation to Ida for her daffodils/stream photo. It was lovely – peaceful – which is always a good sign for my art appreciation. Please convey my thanks.
    Second, I find your credentials for this discussion of Long Covid to be quite sufficient. Anyone who goes on a journey of trying to explain personal medical ambiguities for four years is an expert who deserves an opinion on everything.
    Thank goodness you became a blogger.

    Liked by 1 person

Talk to me

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.