Doctors treat a COVID-19 patient in an ICU unitShare on Pinterest
Many people who first had COVID-19 in 2020 are still experiencing lingering health issues. Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images
  • A study from China assessed the current health of some of the first COVID-19 survivors two years later.
  • The researchers saw that half of these hospitalized patients are continuing to experience COVID-19 symptoms, or “long COVID.
  • In general, two years later, patients who experienced COVID-19 when vaccines were not available are in poorer health compared to people who did not develop COVID-19.

Coronavirus data

All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date. Visit our coronavirus hub for the most recent information on COVID-19.

Was this helpful?

The first cases of COVID-19 were reported in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China in December 2019. It has now been over two years since the beginning of the outbreak connected to the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in Wuhan.

Since then, many COVID-19 survivors have reported lingering health issues or symptoms that suddenly appear months and even a year after the initial infection. It is important to note that these patients experienced COVID-19 before vaccines were developed against SARS-CoV-2.

A recent study looked into the current conditions of COVID-19 patients from Wuhan two years later.

Of the people researchers assessed for the study, half reported having at least one long COVID symptom two years after acute infection.

The study was published in THE LANCET Respiratory Medicine.

Dr. David F. Putrino, associate professor of rehabilitation and human performance at Mount Sinai, New York, who was not involved in the study, told Medical News Today:

“We are incredibly concerned by this. Although new variants and vaccination appear to have reduced the risk of long COVID overall, there is still a relatively large proportion of individuals experiencing long COVID symptoms after an acute infection, and we are incredibly concerned this will culminate in a mass-disabling event.”

“[I]f we allow COVID-19 to spread at its current rate, it is becoming increasingly likely that we are going to have a severe, mass-disabling event on our hands.”
— Dr. David F. Putrino

The new study, led by Professor Bin Cao of the China-Japan Friendship Hospital in Beijing, China, is the first to report on the health of people who had acute SARS-CoV-2 infection two years ago before vaccines were developed.

The 2,469 participants in the study had all been discharged from Jin Yin-tan Hospital between January 7 and May 29, 2020. 1,119 of them chose to continue undergoing hospital evaluations and interviews two years after infection.

“This is surprising, and there aren’t other studies out there yet that can look two years out from acute illness,” Dr. James R. Heath, president and professor at the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, WA, who was also not involved in the study, told MNT.

“There have been reports going out to perhaps six months or even a year, I think, but largely on mild infections,” he said.

At six months after acute infection, 68% of participants reported symptoms of long COVID, and by two years, that number had dropped to 55%.

However, the study’s authors write that long COVID symptoms at two years were related to decreased quality of life, lower exercise capacity, abnormal mental health, and increased use of healthcare after discharge.

The most common long COVID symptoms after two years were muscle weakness or fatigue, and sleep difficulties, both reported by 31% of participants.

“We already know that long COVID, in its various manifestations, is a major issue,” said Dr. Heath, “especially in patients who experienced severe illness, but also in patients that experienced only mild infections… For those patients, the chronic symptoms appear to dissipate more quickly.”

“This is incredibly troubling when we consider that long COVID affects not only hospitalized patients, but also non-hospitalized patients (who were not studied here). This study [s]hould serve as a reminder that death is not the only serious consequence of an acute COVID-19 infection.”
— Dr. David F. Putrino

After two years, 89% of participants had returned to their original work.

Dr. Angela Cheung, a professor at the University of Toronto, who was also not involved in the study, addressed what the future may hold for people who experienced COVID-19.

“Long-term sequelae of COVID-19 (long COVID) may be dependent on a number of factors: treatments that patients got when they were acutely ill, number and type of vaccinations they received prior to contracting COVID-19, dose of the virus, host response, as well as the variant (e.g., Omicron vs. Delta),” she said.

“Thus,” said Dr. Cheung, “it is difficult to predict the medical future of COVID-19 survivors. The current numbers are huge, but I am hoping that with time and treatment, they will fall.

Dr. Heath said that as scientists’ understanding of long COVID rapidly expands, such findings will “almost certainly” lead to treatments.

“However, it is going to take a few years to test those treatments in appropriate double-blind placebo-controlled trials, and there are likely multiple disease etiologies, implying multiple treatments will be needed,” he added.