ONS data shows long COVID less common than feared

pharmafile | September 17, 2021 | News story | Medical Communications  

New data released by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reveal that only one in 40 people with coronavirus goes on to develop long COVID, rather than the one in 10 figure released in April.

This latest figure comes from a large scale and comprehensive analysis conducted by the ONS, and suggests that the condition is not as common as previously thought.

The ONS collected data from more than 50,000 people, half of whom had tested positive for coronavirus.

However, the condition is not fully understood and still has no universally agreed definition, leading to different studies producing different figures.

The latest ONS analysis asked two groups of people – those who had tested positive for coronavirus and those who had not – whether they had the following symptoms:

  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle ache
  • weakness
  • tiredness
  • nausea
  • abdominal pain
  • diarrhoea
  • sore throat
  • cough
  • shortness of breath
  • loss of taste
  • loss of smell


About 3% of people in the study who had tested positive had at least one of the symptoms for at least three months after infection.

Among those who had not tested positive, that proportion was 0.5%, meaning one in every 40 infected people had their coronavirus symptoms last for three months or longer.

Like many other reports, the analysis suggests that women aged between 50 and 69 years old and people with other long-term health conditions are the most likely to have some of these symptoms 12 weeks after a COVID infection.

People with high levels of virus in their body when testing positive are also more likely to have long COVID, the data suggests.

ONS statisticians pointed out that studies from other organisations have their own definitions of long COVID with more symptoms, focus on different people (for example some include people with suspected COVID infections alongside those confirmed by a test) and a different way of collecting data.

Their own list of symptoms didn’t include “brain fog”, something commonly reported by people with long COVID. Therefore, they also asked people whether they had long COVID as well as the 12 symptoms on the list.

Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of statistics at the Open University, spoke to the BBC: “It does not concern me that, at this stage in the pandemic, numerical estimates about something as new and complicated as long COVID differ quite a lot – what is important is that those involved should discuss openly what needs to be done to clarify the position.

“But the need to do that should not hold up the establishment and improvement of services to help people with these conditions, however they are defined and counted.”

Kat Jenkins

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