WASHINGTON — The federal government has burned through more than $1 billion to study long Covid, an effort to help the millions of Americans who experience brain fog, fatigue, and other symptoms after recovering from a coronavirus infection.
There’s basically nothing to show for it.
The National Institutes of Health hasn’t signed up a single patient to test any potential treatments — despite a clear mandate from Congress to study them. And the few trials it is planning have already drawn a firestorm of criticism, especially one intervention that experts and advocates say may actually make some patients’ long Covid symptoms worse.
Instead, the NIH spent the majority of its money on broader, observational research that won’t directly bring relief to patients. But it still hasn’t published any findings from the patients who joined that study, almost two years after it started.
There’s no sense of urgency to do more or to speed things up, either. The agency isn’t asking Congress for any more funding for long Covid research, and STAT and MuckRock obtained documents showing the NIH refuses to use its own money to change course.
“So far, I don’t think we’ve gotten anything for a billion dollars,” said Ezekiel Emanuel, a physician, vice provost for global initiatives, and co-director of the Healthcare Transformation Institute at the University of Pennsylvania. “That is just unacceptable, and it’s a serious dysfunction.”
Eric Topol, the founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, said he expected the NIH would have launched many large-scale trials by now, and that testing treatments should have been an urgent priority when Congress first gave the agency money in late 2020.
“I don’t know that they’ve contributed anything except more confusion,” Topol said.
Patients and researchers have already raised alarms about the glacial pace of the NIH’s early long Covid efforts. But a new investigation from STAT and the nonprofit news organization MuckRock, based on interviews with nearly two dozen government officials, experts, patients, and advocates, and internal NIH correspondence, letters, and public documents, underscores that the NIH hasn’t picked up the pace — instead, the delays have compounded.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why progress is so stalled, experts and patients involved in the project emphasized, because the NIH has obscured both who is in charge of the long Covid efforts and how it spent the money. The broader Biden administration has also missed opportunities for oversight and accountability of the effort — despite the president’s lofty promises to focus on the disease.