Vaccines aren't supposed to work this way. As the Philadelphia Inquirer notes, they're meant to prevent disease, not help those already infected. And yet anecdotal evidence continues to emerge that COVID "long haulers"—those with debilitating symptoms that refuse to go away—are seeing relief after receiving coronavirus vaccinations, reports WebMD. Researchers are trying to figure out what's going on, but so far no comprehensive study has been done on the subject. For now, only educated guesses are in play. One possibility is that it's coincidence: patients would have gotten better anyway with time, and the vaccines played no role in their recovery. Another is that there's a placebo effect going on. But some researchers, notably Yale University immunologist Akiko Iwasaki, see a biological rationale for the improvements.
It's possible long haulers retain a "persistent viral reservoir" in their bodies, and the vaccines help get rid of it, says Iwasaki, who outlines her thinking at Medium and in a Twitter thread. Iwasaki is in the process of organizing a study. "I think there’s a likelihood that this is a real phenomenon," Harvard immunologist Michael Mina tells the Inquirer. He floats the idea that the vaccine acts as a sort of "reset button" for the body's immune response. A survey of almost 600 long-haulers by Survivor Corps found that 39% felt better after vaccinations, while 47% saw no change and 14% felt worse, per USA Today. Meanwhile, personal accounts continue to emerge. "I really felt back to myself, to a way that I didn’t think was possible when I was really sick," a 34-year-old who dealt with symptoms for eight months tells the Washington Post. (Some long-haul symptoms appear to arrive in clusters.)