Coronavirus may continue to damage heart even after recovery and its long-term impact must be probed: Study

Coronavirus may continue to damage heart even after recovery and its long-term impact must be probed: Study
(Getty Images)

Two new studies provide information on the toll that the new coronavirus could take on the heart. In the first, scientists detected damage to cardiac health in recovered Covid-19 patients. The second identified the virus in the heart tissue of people who died of the disease.

"We wish not to generate additional anxiety but rather to incite other investigators to carefully examine existing and prospectively collect new data in other populations to confirm or refute these findings," Dr Clyde W Yancy from Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and Dr Gregg C Fonarow University of California, Los Angeles, commented on the two studies in an editorial.

These studies add weight to the theory that Covid-19 is not merely a respiratory disease. Previous studies have indicated that the virus can fatally damage the heart. If experts can confirm this high rate of risk, then the crisis of Covid-19 will not ease, "but will instead shift to a new de novo incidence of heart failure and other chronic cardiovascular complications, Dr Yancy and Dr Fonarow explained.

Details from the first study

Researchers from Germany recruited 100 participants -- aged between 45 and 53 -- who survived Covid-19. Of them, 67% recovered at home, while 33% needed hospitalization. To acquire detailed images of the heart, they used an imaging technique called cardiac MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Blood tests were also done. The team compared the test results with 50 healthy volunteers and 57 other patients facing cardiac risks.

To acquire detailed images of the heart, they used an imaging technique called cardiac MRI. (Getty Images)

The results showed that 78% of Covid-19 survivors had some abnormality in their heart health, and 60% had inflammation -- the body's response to the infection, which can unwittingly cause other cardiac diseases. These complications occurred regardless of preexisting conditions, disease severity, and the time from the original diagnosis. 

Researchers have not studied cardiac effects in patients younger than 18 and those currently suffering from the disease. However, the study calls for investigation on the long-term impacts of Covid-19. "Our findings may provide an indication of the potentially considerable burden of inflammatory disease in large and growing parts of the population and urgently require confirmation in a larger cohort [group of people]," the authors wrote in their study.

Autopsies reveal more information

The second study, also from German researchers, found traces of the coronavirus in people who succumbed to Covid-19. They arrived at this after studying autopsies of 39 patients aged between 78 and 89. Of them, 35 reportedly died of coronavirus-mediated pneumonia, and 17 had underlying conditions.

They looked for coronavirus RNA in the heart tissues. They found no traces of the virus in 15 deceased patients. Of the remaining 24, eight had them in limited amounts, and 16 had a higher presence. Further, the researchers found clues to suggest that the virus could be making copies of itself in five patients. 

The study raises questions on whether the new coronavirus can replicate in the heart. The researchers acknowledge a few limitations in the research, including its small sample size and the age group. "Elderly age of the patients might have influenced the results," they said.

“These are two studies that both suggest that being infected with Covid-19 carries a high likelihood of having some involvement of the heart. If not answering questions, [they] prompt important questions about what the cardiac aftermath is,” Matthew Tomey, a cardiologist and assistant professor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Health System in New York, told STAT.

“The question now is how long these changes persist. Are these going to become chronic effects upon the heart or are these — we hope —  temporary effects on cardiac function that will gradually improve over time?” Tomey, who was not involved in either study, wondered.

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