Clinics in Europe are offering unproven "blood washing" services to help desperate patients deal with debilitating symptoms of long Covid.
The British Medical Journal reported that patients were spending up to $60,000 in clinics in Cyprus, Germany and Switzerland for treatments that are largely untested for long Covid.
Although difficult to diagnose medically, some patients who have recovered from infection reported persistent symptoms including brain fog, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sickness and chest pain.
Procedures on offer across Europe include a process called apheresis, which involves needles being inserted into the veins of a patient to filter the blood, removing lipids and inflammatory proteins.
While recommended by the German Society of Nephrology as a standard last resort for lipid disorders, some experts are concerned patients are spending vast sums of money on invasive, unproven treatments that have so far yielded mixed results.
Shamil Haroon, a clinical lecturer in primary care at the University of Birmingham and a researcher on the Therapies for Long Covid in Non-hospitalised Patients (TLC) trial, told the BMJ there were concerns over the reliability of emerging new therapies.
“It’s unsurprising that people who were previously highly functioning, who are now debilitated, can’t work, and can’t financially support themselves, would seek treatments elsewhere,” Mr Haroon told the BMJ.
“It’s a completely rational response to a situation like this.
“But people could potentially go bankrupt accessing these treatments, for which there is limited to no evidence of effectiveness.
“Delivering such an experimental treatment should occur only in the context of a clinical trial.”
An investigation by the BMJ found that thousands of people had turned to clinics offering similar services and joined Facebook groups to share their experiences.
Some specialist clinics in Cyprus began offering the services to long Covid patients in March.
Patients are also prescribed anticlotting drugs, including clopidogrel, apixaban, and heparin, on the understanding that small blood clots resulting from a Covid-19 infection could restrict blood flow.
Thousands spent on unproven treatments
Gitte Boumeester, a trainee psychiatrist in Almelo, the Netherlands, was infected with Sars-CoV-2 in November 2020 and joined a Facebook group for others with symptoms of long Covid.
Ms Boumeester told the journal she suffered extreme fatigue and recognised other common symptoms, but her GP was unable to offer an effective solution.
She decided to visit a clinic in Cyprus as a last resort.
“I thought, what’s the worst thing I’ve got to lose?” she said.
“Money was the only thing. I thought, OK, well, why not give it a try?”
After two months in Larnaca with twice-weekly visits to a private clinic, and six rounds of apheresis at $1,700 a session, she returned to the Netherlands with no noticeable improvement in her condition.
In total, with add-on treatments such as hyperbaric oxygen therapy and intravenous vitamin drips, she had spent $60,000.
Ms Boumeester travelled to Cyprus after reading testimonials and research online and the Facebook page of the Apheresis Association, a group with 4,700 members that promotes apheresis as a treatment for long Covid.
“I do think they should emphasise the experimental nature of the treatments more, especially because it’s so expensive,” she said.
“I realised before I started that the outcome was uncertain, but everyone at the clinic is so positive that you start to believe it too and get your hopes up.”
The BMJ contacted Cyprus’s Ministry of Health and the Cyprus Medical Association to ask whether the clinic or doctor was breaking any professional or ethical standards in the country but did not receive a response.
Millions living with long Covid
In Britain, an estimated two million people are suffering with long Covid, with 376,000 living with symptoms for more than two years according to the Office for National Statistics.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation estimates that 10 per cent to 20 per cent of Covid-19 patients with an acute infection experience lingering symptoms, sometimes for months afterwards.
RAK Hospital in Ras Al Khaimah is leading the way in specialist care for long Covid patients in the UAE.
Doctors there said insomnia, depression and chronic fatigue were some of the most commonly reported long-term conditions.
Researchers at the hospital studied 3,200 people to understand associated risk factors and found overweight people were 62 per cent more likely to develop complications.
The hospital was one of the first in the UAE to offer bamlanivimab, a lab-made antibody shown to reduce the risk of infected patients falling seriously ill.