A virus that “ lives ” in silence in nearly 95% of us in the process of reactivating
This virus is one of the most common and widespread infections in the world. No, we are not talking about Coronavirus – the Epstein-Barr virus, which secretly resides in nearly 95% of the inhabitants of the planet.
Most people don’t even know they are wearing it because it rarely creates a problem.
It also spreads in the same way as the coronavirus and is very contagious. Most people get infected with it in their early childhood, when sharing toys or playing with friends.
But if we get infected later, as teenagers or young adults, Epstein-Barr can lead to a disease, known as glandular fever.
As we grow and develop our immune system, and it becomes more and more difficult for our body to fight this virus when it comes in contact with it for the first time, it can make us very weak, leading to symptoms like fatigue, high fever (adolescents can get sick for months and may miss exams too), a sore throat, and swollen cervical glands.
Either way, 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 it now?
After a year of pandemic, scientists made a fascinating discovery: What they found is that people who suffer from Long-Covid are showing positive for ‘reactivated’ Epstein-Barr.
One in ten, who have been confronted with covid, line up for ‘Long-Covid’, experiencing symptoms such as fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle pain and brain fog for months, and for some it has been a year. But this creates doubt among the scientific communities and they are afraid, because it can be a form of glandular fever. But they are still looking for an answer.
But if so, which we believe, it may open up new avenues of treatment.
Tests carried out on patients suffering from Long-Covid have shown a different type of antibody, which fights and reacts correctly against it.
But a patient, Helen Kirwan-Taylor, 59, living in Notting Hill with her husband, who was infected with the coronavirus in February, found she had ‘reactivated’ Epstein-Barr.
After symptoms of sore throat, cold sores, sinus flare-ups and days of overwhelming exhaustion.
“I felt like I had a brick in my chest,” says Helen. “ Then, in May of last year, I got so disoriented, dizzy and weak that I almost crashed the car. ”
Her GP performed blood tests which, while otherwise normal, suggested she was battling Epstein-Barr.
Helen had glandular fever when she was 17 and spent two months in bed. Since then, she has suffered from chronic fatigue syndrome twice – and in both cases, tests have involved Epstein-Barr.
“I don’t remember the glandular fever symptoms being as vicious, pernicious and confusing as when they came back,” she says.
Helen isn’t the only one: Social media forums devoted to Covid have long been discussing the phenomenon.
Yet there is very little research in this area. A small study of just 67 Covid patients from Wuhan found that the most seriously ill were more likely to have reactivated the Epstein-Barr virus. Some UK experts now believe that it is ‘quite plausible’ that Covid actually causes this reactivation in some people – and for a long time Covid could be linked to this.
Relatively few people with long-standing Covid have been treated by doctors – as most were not sick enough in the early stages of infection to require hospital treatment. Some have also struggled to convince GPs to take their symptoms seriously. This means that virtually none have had tests for Epstein-Barr. And not all doctors agree that glandular fever is likely to underlie symptoms of Covid.
Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, said it would take a “ huge trial ” to determine if there was a link.
“ There are so many people with a long Covid that it’s not really a surprise that there are also some with Epstein-Barr reactivated, ” he adds. “ A good hypothesis is worth thinking about, however, and members of the longtime Covid community are very articulate and motivated to find a solution. ”
So what is the evidence – and what could be happening? The Epstein-Barr virus is a member of the herpes virus family, which includes chickenpox, cold sores, and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which causes flu-like symptoms. All of them can persist for life and each of them can reactivate when the body is stressed or the immune system is weakened. This is why people get cold sores if they are not under the bad weather.
Transplant patients, who must take drugs that suppress the immune system for life to avoid rejection of their new organ, are known to be at risk of cytomegalovirus reactivation. And in HIV-positive patients, the cytomegalovirus also comes back on. Professor Dalgleish was a leading AIDS researcher when the epidemic began in the UK in the 1980s, and treatment for cytomegalovirus meant patients could leave hospital “in the rain”.
“This is why I am so excited about the possible links between herpes viruses and Covid,” he says. “We have seen this with HIV. If you are treating cytomegalovirus, you could go from a patient who was on the brink of death to someone who comes out and you see on an outpatient basis. Could the same work for Covid?
As Professor Dalgleish explains, the Epstein-Barr virus has also long been considered a factor in chronic fatigue syndrome – as Helen knows. Many people with the disease, also known as ME, report that their problems started with a viral-like illness.
Virologist Lawrence Young, professor at the University of Warwick, says: “ If you get Covid your body’s immune system becomes overactive and certain things don’t work effectively. Your T cells, which recognize and fight viruses the body has seen before, are shrinking. Any other infection you may have, including herpes viruses, can come back on. The Epstein-Barr virus is permanently reactivated in some cases.
Professor Young is conducting research that examines cells containing the Epstein-Barr virus and analyzes what happens to them when infected with coronavirus. “We expect this will cause more of the Epstein-Barr virus,” he says. He also hopes to examine blood samples taken from Covid patients treated in hospital to see if the virus has been reactivated.
Another theory is that the Epstein-Barr resurgence makes the initial Covid infection itself more severe. Professor Young said: ‘There is growing circumstantial evidence that the Epstein-Barr virus has some sort of effect, both in hospital patients and for a long time Covid. Doctors are also looking to find out if those who developed glandular fever as young adults are at greater risk of long-term Covid.
“We need to look to see if there is an association between the severity of Covid and previous glandular fever,” says Professor Young. “Being infected in childhood strengthens the immune system. Get it later and it could alter the body’s response and have long term consequences for the immune system.
Certainly, some of those with a long publication of Covid and the reactivated Epstein-Barr virus on internet forums say they have had glandular fever in the past. They now recognize that their symptoms are similar to those of glandular fever.
Perhaps this is why testing those with a long Covid for the Epstein-Barr virus could be so important – Professor Dalgleish and Professor Young agree that it could be vital to organize further research.