Patients who use the antiviral medication Nirmatrelvir to treat COVID-19 infections are less likely to develop so-called “long COVID” symptoms than other sick individuals, according to new research released by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

A study of more than 56,000 VA patients who tested positive for coronavirus infection found that the oral antiviral medication (better known by its brand name, Paxlovid) helped reduce the chance of long-term health complications like breathing problems, heart damage and neurocognitive impairment by 25%.

“Paxlovid reduces the risk of severe COVID-19 in the acute phase, and now we have evidence that it can help reduce the risk of long COVID,” said Dr. Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of research and development at the VA St. Louis Health Care System, which led the study. “This treatment could be an important asset to address the serious issue of long COVID.”

VA medical researchers have been at the forefront of research into the COVID-19 virus since the start of the pandemic in America in March 2020, in large part because of the VA health care system’s broad reach and large number of patients.

In the past 32 months, more than 788,000 patients connected to the VA medical system have contracted the virus, and more than 23,000 have died from complications related to infection.

In August, the department’s Long COVID Integrated Project Team released new guidance for VA staffers to monitor for signs of long COVID-19 among patients, saying that about 2% of coronavirus cases result in lingering health issues more than four weeks after an initial diagnosis.

Some can be serious. Officials said patients who contracted COVID-19 had a 60% higher risk of mental health challenges one year after recovering.

The new study says that Paxlovid may help stave off some of those issues. Researchers found the decreased risk of long COVID associated with the medication exists “regardless of whether it was a participant’s first infection or a reinfection, and regardless of whether the participant was unvaccinated, vaccinated or boosted.”

Federal regulators approved Paxlovid for COVID-positive patients at a risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms in December 2021. In July, when President Joe Biden contracted the virus, his doctors administered a five-day regimen of the medication as a preventative measure.

In a statement, VA Secretary Denis McDonough hailed the findings as “groundbreaking” work that “is going to improve the lives of veterans and all Americans.”

Information on the new study is available online. The department’s past research on coronavirus issues is available on its website.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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