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A virus that ‘lives’ silently in almost 95 percent of us reactivating – it’s not Covid but it may be a backdoor

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Aakash Molpariya
Aakash started in Nov 2018 as a writer at Revyuh.com. Since joining, as writer, he is mainly responsible for Software, Science, programming, system administration and the Technology ecosystem, but due to his versatility he is used for everything possible. He writes about topics ranging from AI to hardware to games, stands in front of and behind the camera, creates creative product images and much more. He is a trained IT systems engineer and has studied computer science. By the way, he is enthusiastic about his own small projects in game development, hardware-handicraft, digital art, gaming and music. Email: aakash (at) revyuh (dot) com

This virus is one of the world’s most common and widespread infections. No, we are not talking about Coronavirus – the Epstein-Barr virus, which resides secretly in almost 95 percent of people on earth.

Most people will not even know they carrying it, as it rarely creates any issue.

It also spreads the same way as Coronavirus, and it is highly contagious. Most people get infected with this in their early childhood, while sharing toys or playing with friends.

But if we get infected with this later, as adolescents or young adults, Epstein-Barr can lead to an illness, known as glandular fever.

As we grow and develop our immune system, and it gets harder for our body to fight against this virus when coming into contact with it for the first time, it can make us very weak, leading to symptoms like fatigue, a high fever(teenagers may get sick for months, and may miss their exams too), a painful throat, and swollen neck glands.

Anyways, it doesn’t matter when we get infected with this virus, but it stays with us for life – resting in our immune cells.

But why are we discussing this now?

After a year of the pandemic, scientists have made a fascinating discovery: what they found is that people who are suffering from Long-Covid are showing positive for ‘reactivated’ Epstein-Barr.

One in ten, who have faced covid, line up for ‘Long-Covid’, experiencing symptoms like fatigue, breathlessness, muscle pain, and brain fog for months, and for some, it’s been a year. But it creates doubt among the scientific communities and they are afraid, as it may be some form of Glandular Fever. But they are still looking for an answer.

But if it is, what we are thinking, it may open up new avenues in treatments.

Tests carried out on patients suffering from Long-Covid showed a different type of antibodies, that is fighting and properly responding against it.

But one patient, Helen Kirwan-Taylor, 59, living in Notting Hill with her husband, who became infected with Coronavirus in February, found that she has ‘reactivated’ Epstein-Barr. 

Following symptoms of sore throats, cold sores, sinus flare-ups, and days of crushing exhaustion.

‘I felt I had a brick in my chest,’ says Helen. ‘Then, in May last year I became so disorientated, dizzy and weak that I almost crashed the car.’

Her GP carried out blood tests which, although otherwise normal, suggested that she was battling Epstein-Barr.

Helen had glandular fever when she was 17, and spent two months in bed. Since then she has suffered bouts of chronic fatigue syndrome twice – and in both cases, tests implicated Epstein-Barr.

‘I don’t recall the symptoms of glandular fever being anywhere as vicious, pernicious and confusing as when it came back,’ she says.

Helen isn’t the only one: social-media forums dedicated to long Covid are discussing the phenomenon.

Yet there is very little research in this area. One small study of just 67 Covid patients from Wuhan found the most seriously ill were more likely to have reactivated Epstein-Barr virus. Some British experts now believe it is ‘entirely plausible’ that Covid is actually causing this reactivation in some people – and long Covid could be linked to this.

Relatively few people with long Covid have been treated by doctors – because most were not ill enough in the early stages of infection to need hospital treatment. Some also struggled to get GPs to take their symptoms seriously. It means hardly any have had tests for Epstein-Barr. And not all doctors agree glandular fever is likely to underpin Covid symptoms.

Prof Danny Altmann, immunologist at Imperial College London, says it would need a ‘huge trial’ to work out whether there was any link.

‘There are so many people with long Covid that it’s not really a surprise there might be some also with reactivated Epstein-Barr,’ he adds. ‘A good hypothesis is worth thinking about, though, and those in the long-Covid community are very articulate and driven to find a solution.’

So what is the evidence – and what might be going on? Epstein-Barr virus is a member of the herpes family of viruses, which includes chicken pox, cold sores and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which causes flu-like symptoms. All of them can linger for life, and any of them can reactivate when the body is under stress or the immune system is weakened. This is why people get cold sores if they’re under the weather.

Transplant patients, who have to take drugs that suppress the immune system for life to avoid rejecting their new organ, are known to be at risk of cytomegalovirus reactivation. And in HIV-positive patients, cytomegalovirus also reignites. Prof Dalgleish was one of the leading AIDS researchers when the epidemic began in the UK in the 1980s, and treating cytomegalovirus meant patients could leave the hospital ‘right as rain’.

‘This is why I’m so excited about the possible links between herpes viruses and Covid,’ he says. ‘We saw this with HIV. If you treat the cytomegalovirus, you could go from having a patient who was at death’s door to someone who walks out and you see as an outpatient. Could the same thing work for Covid?’

As Prof Dalgleish explains, the Epstein-Barr virus has also long been considered a factor in chronic fatigue syndrome – as Helen knows. Many people with the illness, also known as ME, report that their problems began with a viral-type illness. 

Virologist Lawrence Young, a professor at the University of Warwick, says: ‘If you get Covid, your body’s immune system becomes hyperactive and some bits don’t work efficiently. Your T-cells, which recognise and fight viruses the body has seen before, go down. Any other infection you might have, including herpes viruses, can reignite. The Epstein-Barr virus is definitely being reactivated in some cases.’

Prof Young is carrying out research which involves examining cells containing the Epstein-Barr virus, and analysing what happens to them when they are infected with coronavirus. ‘Our expectation is that it will cause more Epstein-Barr virus,’ he says. He is also hoping to look at blood samples taken from Covid patients who were treated in hospital to see if the virus was reactivated.

Another theory is that the resurgence of Epstein-Barr is making initial Covid infection itself more severe. Prof Young says: ‘There’s mounting circumstantial evidence that Epstein-Barr virus is having some kind of effect, both in hospitalised patients and in long Covid.’ Doctors are also looking at whether those who developed glandular fever as young adults are more at risk from long Covid. 

‘We need to look to see whether there’s an association between Covid severity and previous glandular fever,’ Prof Young says. ‘Getting infected in childhood beefs up the immune system. Get it later and it might alter the body’s response and have long-term consequences for the immune system.’

Certainly some of those with long Covid and reactivated Epstein-Barr virus posting on internet forums say they had glandular fever in the past. They recognise their symptoms now as similar to glandular fever.

Perhaps this is why testing those with long Covid for Epstein-Barr virus could be so important – both Prof Dalgleish and Prof Young agree it could be vital to organise further research.

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