The University College London Hospitals NHS FT (UCLH), has been awarded £6.8m from the NIHR to conduct – what has been regarded as the largest Long Covid clinical study. It is expected to take place over the next two years.
The research is believed to inform medium and longer-term policy and health system responses, following the impact of the pandemic. The collaborative approach will involve 30 researchers, health professionals, patients and industry partners from more than 30 organisations.
The project will be known as STIMULATE-ICP (Symptoms, Trajectory, Inequalities and Management: Understanding Long-Covid to Address and Transform Existing Integrated Care Pathways).
In order to improve the recovery process, the team will establish what Long Covid is, how to diagnose it, and how to manage it. Patients and healthcare professionals will be interviewed, and data from NHS records will be analysed. This is thought to inform the understanding of Long Covid patterns, and the outcomes of current clinical practice.
Study Co-principal Investigator; Professor of Clinical Data Science at the UCL Institute of Health Informatics; and Consultant Cardiologist at UCLH, Amitava Banerjee said: “Two million people in the UK are estimated to have had persistent symptoms for more than 12 weeks following initial Covid infection, with far-reaching impact on patients, healthcare and the economy.
“More than 80 Long Covid clinics have been established around England, but we need to better understand, diagnose and treat this new disease. Inequalities in access to and provision of Long Covid care have already become apparent.
“Long Covid is challenging the NHS and healthcare systems around the world, which have had to deal with the acute consequences of coronavirus over the last 18 months.”
It also aims to help deliver knowledge to clinicians and scientists, evidence to policymakers, and improved care to patients, as well as collecting real-world data at scale. Researchers on the project come from a wide range of clinical and academic disciplines, including primary care and specialist services, epidemiology, mental health and health economics. There will also be four patient groups involved, who helped develop the research proposals.
Co-principal Investigator, and a consultant in respiratory medicine, Dr Melissa Heightman, who runs the UCLH post-Covid follow-up service, said: “We established our post-Covid clinic in London in May 2020 during the peak of the first wave, ‘building the plane while we were flying it’ and based in the hospital through necessity.
“Individuals with Long Covid need integrated services, working across traditional healthcare boundaries to best meet their complex care and rehabilitation needs. The aim will be to deliver timely high-quality care close to peoples’ homes with community-based diagnostics, but access to specialist input when needed.”
As part of the overall programme, the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) will coordinate a trial, seeking to recruit over 4,500 people with Long Covid. This will start with six sites in Hull, Derby, Leicester, Liverpool, London (UCLH) and Exeter.
The trial will randomly assign individuals to usual care or a new pathway, including community-based and comprehensive MRI scans, which are able to map the effects of Covid-19 on several of the body’s key organs, while enhancing rehabilitation using a digital health platform.
The research programme, will also include another trial that will test different drugs, such as aspirin and colchicine, to measure the effects of three months’ worth of treatments on symptoms, mental health, returning to work, and other important outcomes.
Deputy Director of Lancashire Clinical Trials Unit, and Principal Clinical Trials Manager from UCLan, Denise Forshaw, said: “Over the past year, it’s become clear that Long Covid is a serious and widespread issue that is likely to last for years to come, affecting over a million people in the UK alone.
“While dedicated Long Covid clinics are now in place, there is still much that we have yet to understand about the long-term impact and effective treatment of this illness.
“Through this research, we hope to establish effective investigation, treatment, and rehabilitation pathways that can mitigate the physical and mental health impacts of Long Covid, and create a more certain future for those affected, regardless of their socio-economic background.”