COVID Long-Haulers: UT researchers discovering why women are more likely to suffer from long COVID-19

Why is it that some former COVID-19 patients still have lingering symptoms while many others who have had far more severe cases don’t?

Why some people get longer symptoms and others do not.

HOUSTON – Researchers at the McGovern Medical School are studying blood samples from COVID patients to better understand the impact of the virus and long COVID symptoms.

Rotceh Pena is one of the patients who had a severe infection and was suffering alone in the hospital.

“There’s no physical touch, there’s no ‘you’re going to be OK.’ There’s none of that, that you were longing for when you know that you’re potentially dying,” Pena said.

Even though she survived, she now lives with some lingering COVID symptoms such as, feeling short of breath, battling brain fog and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“Caused me to start having panic attacks that I’ve never had before, and then the feeling again of not being able to breathe is just... it scares me. It just causes me to just panic and I start to cry and hyperventilate even more,” Pena explained.

Her blood samples are some of which are being used in the study led by Dr. Louise McCullough, chair of neurology at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth and chief of neurology at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, and being sponsored by the Huffington Foundation. The goal of the study is to determine what puts a person more at risk for developing long-term symptoms.

They currently have 700 patients enrolled.

What they’ve discovered so far is that while men may have more severe infections that lead to hospitalizations and death, women respond differently.

“Men mount a very robust inflammatory response to COVID. They have lots of these cells called neutrophils, monocytes, cytokines, very inflammatory. A woman with the same degree of disease does not have that. What they have is an increase in B cells and T cells, which are important cells in adaptive immunity, which takes longer to develop, but those are the cells that make antibodies,” Dr. McCullough said. “They have a dramatic increase in these B cells. These B cells, we think, are probably producing autoantibodies. Perhaps to the brain, perhaps to other organs, and we’re seeing in the long-haul COVID patients many more women being affected than men. So men may pay the price in the acute phase and women may be paying more of a price in the chronic phase.”

Finding out how long this lasts and why it’s happening to patients is what will potentially give scientists an idea for earlier intervention down the road.

Dr. McCullough says they could potentially continue studying patients for up to 10 years to have a good understanding of how this virus impacts long-term health.