What we know about how COVID-19 affects the heart, even after the virus is gone
A Canadian doctor is urging that COVID-19 patients be monitored and tracked long after the novel coronavirus leaves their bodies, as evidence mounts that the virus can cause long-lasting heart damage.
A study published in late July found that, of 100 adults in Germany who had recently recovered from COVID-19, 60 showed signs of ongoing heart inflammation. MRI scans picked up other cardiac issues in another 18 recovered patients.
The patients who were studied ranged in age from 45 to 53. Although one-third of the patients were hospitalized, none were deemed to have had severe COVID-19 symptoms.
"What we might be seeing here is a widespread prevalence of heart disease in patients with COVID-19," Dr. Gavin Oudit, a professor of medicine at the University of Alberta and an expert on heart failure, said Wednesday on CTV's Your Morning.
Another study from Germany found that the virus could be detected in 16 of 39 COVID-19 patients who died, although it is not clear whether that contributed to the deaths, as there were no signs of sudden inflammation.
It isn't just the heart that can show lasting effects after COVID-19 infection, though.
This, Oudit said, is because of how coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2 attach themselves to a protein known as angiotensin-converting enzyme 2, or ACE2, which Oudit describes as a "very important enzyme in the body that has unfortunately been hijacked by [SARS-CoV-2] and is now being used as its receptor."
Although ACE2 is strongly associated with the heart, it is present in many organs.
"It's in the lungs; it's in the gut; it's in the cardiovascular system; it's in the kidneys; it's in the central nervous system – which is why COVID-19 patients do so poorly when they get very sick. It really is a multisystemic disease," Oudit said.
Researchers at two Ontario universities are looking into how COVID-19 attacks the lungs, noting that ACE2 is likely only part of the puzzle there.
In the heart, the virus' attack on ACE2 can lead to myocarditis – inflammation – as well as vascular dysfunction, Oudit said, which will make it important for doctors to monitor COVID-19 patients long after the virus has left their bodies.
"I think there are going to be long-lasting effects," he said.
"We all need to be vigilant."