COVID-19 May Be a Trigger for Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

A woman wears a face mask while working on a laptop.

ALBANY, N.Y. (July 25, 2022) - UAlbany researcher Roxana Moslehi from the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics is conducting important investigations on myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) to better understand the illness, including its potential connection to cancer, auto-immune disease, and long-haul COVID-19.

According to the CDC, 1 in thirteen adults in the U.S. have COVID-19 symptoms lasting three or more months after contracting the virus—a condition often referred to as “long COVID.” However, research suggests that long COVID is complex, and in some instances may not be COVID-19 at all, but rather ME/CFS—triggered by COVID-19.

ME/CFS is a complex disabling disorder with no known treatment. Between 25 and 50 percent of those with the illness are bed or housebound for extended periods of time, with overwhelming fatigue that does not diminish after resting and difficulty performing daily tasks. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was estimated that up to 3.4 million people in the US suffered from the illness—the range is large due to the difficulty in diagnosing the disease as it is often dismissed or assumed to be another disorder.

Since ME/CFS is believed to be triggered by the onset of an infectious illness, research suggests that COVID-19 may be a trigger for ME/CFS. The chronic long-haul COVID-19 symptoms that some people report as following the resolution of their acute illness have similarities to symptoms of ME/CFS, such as persistent fatigue, sleep dysfunction, cognitive impairment, impaired memory, and more.

“It is estimated that in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 10 million new ME/CFS cases may be triggered around the world,” Moslehi explains. “This makes it urgent to identify risk factors and underlying biologic mechanisms for this condition along with its potential connection to COVID-19.”

Moslehi conducted a molecular epidemiologic investigation of ME/CFS (funded by an NIH research grant awarded to her) to better understand the illness, providing the most compelling evidence to date that ME/CFS may be an auto-immune disorder. She compared people who developed ME/CFS after having an infectious illness with a group of individuals without ME/CFS (called the control group). She looked at various intrinsic factors related to the participants’ health, such as personal history of allergy and asthma, and extrinsic or environmental factors such as exposure to contaminants. She also assessed the prevalence of illnesses such as auto-immune diseases and cancer in their families, levels of serum immune system markers such as cytokines, and molecular evidence of viral reactivation such as mono flare-ups.

The study, published in the proceedings of the American Society of Human Genetics (ASHG), the International Genetic Epidemiology Society (IGES) and the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR), found that those with ME/CFS were five times more likely to have a family history of auto-immune diseases than the control group. ME/CFS was also associated with an increased risk of early-onset cancer (diagnosed before 60 years old) among the first-degree relatives. ME/CFS was associated with certain risk factors such as a history of allergies requiring medication and exposure to contaminants. The analysis by the Moslehi lab also identified a panel of cytokines that predict the risk of ME/CFS with high accuracy. A couple of the identified cytokines are involved in inflammatory processes and have been linked to other auto-immune diseases.

“Our multidimensional analysis of pedigree, epidemiologic, and molecular data not only provides the most objective evidence to date that ME/CFS may be an auto-immune disease— it provides etiologic clues and leads for prevention” says Moslehi. “In addition, our results may enable defining a subset of COVID-19 patients, who are at risk of developing long COVID or ME/CFS, for targeted monitoring and/or therapy.”

More recently, Moslehi, in collaboration with her colleagues at the NIH, obtained two additional NIH (intramural) grants to continue her research on ME/CFS. Through these grants, the DNA and RNA of ME/CFS cases and controls have been sequenced and will be analyzed to identify genes and genetic variations that are associated with ME/CFS.

“The ultimate goal is to conduct an integrative analysis of multi-omics (genomics, proteomics, transcriptomics) data to gain deeper insight into the biologic mechanisms of ME/CFS and identify druggable targets for ME/CFS therapy,” she says.