From symptoms to research – a coronavirus journey
For a fit and healthy 23-year-old, a COVID-19 diagnosis during mandatory quarantine that only had minor symptoms may not be much cause for ongoing concern.
But the long-term impacts on his body and the unknowns about immunity were enough to encourage Adelaide man Braden Stewart to lend himself to world-leading research.
Braden is participating in the COVID-19 South Australian immunity study being led by virologist Dr Branka Grubor-Bauk, supported by The Hospital Research Foundation and Women’s and Children’s Hospital Foundation.
His story also sparks as a warning for other young people to listen to their bodies and get tested if they experience even the most minor symptoms – to avoid passing it on to the more vulnerable.
Catching coronavirus: the first symptoms
“I had been in Europe in March on a Contiki tour with my girlfriend. We arrived back in Australia 24 hours after the cut-off to international travellers, so we had to quarantine,” Braden explained.
“We’d been in Italy when it was quite widespread but I didn’t catch it on that trip, I caught it from the couple I was sitting next to on the domestic flight from Melbourne to Adelaide.
“I didn’t feel sick, but I got a phone call about four or five days later while I was in quarantine saying I had sat next to a confirmed case, so I should get tested and that’s how I arrived at the RAH.
“The day before I got tested I did feel a little rundown, a little off, tired and had some body aches. But it was hard to know if that was because of corona or just because I’d been inside for many days, just returned from a big holiday, had started some exercises to keep fit which I hadn’t for a while.”
Living with COVID-19 symptoms. Are there long-term effects of coronavirus?
“After the positive result, my symptoms didn’t really progress, it was mainly that one day. I did have a bad mouth ulcer for that whole week but I don’t know if that was my immune system responding to the virus or something unrelated.”
Interestingly, Braden’s girlfriend, who he was quarantining with, never tested positive.
It is unknowns such as this, as well as the fatigue he has been feeling more recently since returning to sport, that encouraged him to participate in the study.
“I’ve just got back to footy and I have been feeling a little off. I explained to the research nurse how I’d been feeling a bit fatigued, and she said that other people have been reporting similar things,” Braden said.
“So I’m a bit curious about whether it could affect me long-term. I know I didn’t have it that bad but there could be some long-lasting impacts there.
“And considering I didn’t have strong symptoms, what does that mean for my antibodies? Will they not be as strong? There are just so many unknowns.
“There is such a need to understand more about it, so the research is really important.”
To cure COVID-19, we need to understand immunity
Braden is one of over 135 people invited to participate in the study through the Royal Adelaide Hospital. At his initial appointment, he provided blood and saliva samples and had his symptoms recorded. He will return in two months to contribute further.
Head researcher Dr Grubor-Bauk said the need to find out more about how the virus works in the body and people’s ongoing immunity was critical in the fight against COVID-19.
“We are working to find out why some people only present with very mild symptoms and why some need intensive care, why are children mostly asymptomatic and how does it impact pregnant women,” she said.
“And importantly, for people who have recovered, are they protected against a second infection? What is our immunity like and how long does immunity last?
Searching for a coronavirus vaccine
“Along with deciphering these vital questions on immunity after infection and interactions between coronavirus and our immune system, this information will also aid global efforts in the development of COVID-19 vaccines,” Dr Grubor-Bauk said.
“We are so grateful to The Hospital Research Foundation and their donors for supporting this work. Yes, there are lots of studies around the world into COVID-19 but often with vaccine development, you must throw a lot of darts at a dart board, hoping one will stick.
“The world needs more than one successful vaccine to supply the global population, so more efforts that there are, the better the outcome for us all.”
Dr Grubor-Bauk said she was grateful to all the South Australian patients who had volunteered to participate in the study, while more patients were also being recruited from interstate.
“We very much appreciate them taking time out of their busy lives to attend the clinic for multiple visits. It is their good will, humanity and willingness to support this vital research that will help not only us, but researchers across Australia and the world, fight the coronavirus in order for our lives to return to normality,” she said.
“We are now part of a large national collaborative consortium, working with scientists and clinicians from four states to increase the sample size of patients available for detailed analysis to further improve our understanding of the virus and the COVID-19 disease.”