NIH to invest another $515M over 4 years for long COVID research

The National Institutes of Health is investing $515 million more into long COVID research efforts, three years after launching the initiative with $1.15 billion.

The cash infusion for the Recover program, announced Tuesday, will bolster ongoing research into the underlying biology and potential treatments for long COVID. NIH Director Monica Bertagnolli, M.D., said in a release that nearly 90,000 people were participating in ongoing Recover observational trials across more than 300 sites. 

“The amount of data being produced is unparalleled compared to any program in the world,” Bertagnolli said.

NIH’s additional investment will go toward identifying new biological targets for potential treatments, testing new interventions and learning more about what triggers longer-term effects in adults and children versus those who ultimately recover after COVID-19 infection. The NIH has already identified 13 potential interventions, with clinical trials starting for four of them in 2023. 

Some long COVID advocates and the medical professionals serving them have been critical of the effort so far, arguing that there is little to show two years after launching and that the initial treatment trials were likely to fail. Bertagnoli said in Tuesday’s announcement that the agency has tried to make the trials flexible and amenable to change.

“RECOVER clinical trials use a flexible framework to rapidly identify treatments that work, remove those that don’t and add new interventions for testing,” she said. 

Scientists at the University of Zurich recently identified the complement system as a potential source of dysfunction post-COVID infection that could lead to some of the autoimmune breakdowns seen in patients with long-term effects. The scientists found that once activated post-infection, the complement system doesn’t turn off in some patients. The findings could help nail down the exact kind of treatable targets that the NIH hopes to incorporate into future Recover studies. 

Efforts by the biotech industry to tackle long COVID have so far fallen short. Tonix tried testing the fibromyalgia drug cyclobenzaprine in patients with fibromyalgia-like long COVID but it failed to improve pain symptoms in a phase 2 study. Flagship-founded Axcella shuttered in late 2023 after running out of cash to pursue a last-ditch effort aiming its lead asset at long COVID.