Israeli MRI study finds heart damage from COVID-19 vaccine is rare and mild

Beilinson Hosptial research, believed to be the largest using detailed imaging technique, concludes outcome is ‘favorable,’ long-term effects not expected

An Israeli receives a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Maccabi Health Care center in Katsrin, Golan Heights, October 7, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
An Israeli receives a third dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a Maccabi Health Care center in Katsrin, Golan Heights, October 7, 2021. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

A study conducted by Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva, using a detailed scanning technique to examine patients with symptoms of a heart muscle condition after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, found that damage was rare, mild, and expected to heal.

The study used cardiac magnetic resonance imaging on patients diagnosed with myocarditis, a weakening of the heart muscles that has been found in a few patients after they were inoculated.

A link has been seen in recent months between coronavirus vaccines using mRNA technology and very rare cases of myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle) and pericarditis (inflammation of the lining around the heart).

“Among patients who were diagnosed with post-vaccination clinical myocarditis, CMR imaging findings are mild and consistent with ‘classical myocarditis,” researchers concluded in the study, which was published last week in the European heart journal Cardiovascular Imaging.

“The short-term clinical course and outcomes were favorable,” they wrote.

Ashraf Hamdan, head of cardio-imaging at the hospital and one of the authors of the paper, said the study was the largest so far done in the world using CMR to examine the damage caused to heart muscle tissue from the vaccines.

“The study showed that this is a rare phenomenon characterized by slight damage to the heart muscle, which is thus not expected to affect patients’ long-term health,” Hamdan said in a hospital statement.

Researchers scanned 15 out of 54 patients who were diagnosed with myocarditis 42 days after they received the first Pfizer-BioNTech shot. Of the 15 — all of whom were men — ten also had a second dose. The research was carried out between December 20, 2020, and May 24, 2021, and scans were taken between three and 130 days after diagnosis.

The most common complaint among the patients was chest pains that passed. All the patients survived and were eventually released from the hospital.

Medical team members work in the coronavirus ward of Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva on October 4, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

A related paper by Israel’s largest healthcare provider, Clalit, along with Beilinson, published a month ago in The New England Journal of Medicine, examined data on 2.5 million vaccinated Israelis, 94 percent of whom had received two doses of the vaccine.

It found that cases of such inflammation occurred in 54 people (51 men, three women) or 2.13 of every 100,000 vaccinees (some two thousandths of a percentage point). Of those, 98 percent of cases were mild (76%) to moderate (22%) and did not cause any damage to heart function. A single person of the 2.5 million experienced a severe case that required hospitalization, and went on to recover, the study found.

When it does occur, the heart inflammation side effect has particularly been seen in younger males, after their second dose. The new study bore that out, with 69% of cases occurring after the second shot, mostly in males and mostly in the 16-29 age group (where case prevalence was 10.7 for every 100,000).

US health officials have been looking to data from Israel to help shed light on the safety of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 booster shots in young people, and the risks of developing myocarditis.

US chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, told Reuters last month that a key question yet to be answered was “the safety data of an mRNA in young people vis-à-vis myocarditis.”

“The Israelis will relatively soon have that data because they’re vaccinating everybody in the country I think from 12 years old up, including their military recruits,” Fauci said. He added that the data could “help address the gap in safety information on mRNA vaccines,” according to the report.

Israel has made vaccination the central plank in its efforts to curb virus infections.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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