Fact check: Anti-vaxxers link sudden cardiac events with COVID-19 vaccines; is there truth to it?

Fact check: Anti-vaxxers link sudden cardiac events with COVID-19 vaccines; is there truth to it?

While playing against the Cincinnati Bengals during a Monday night football game, Buffalo Bills’ defensive back Damar Hamlin suddenly collapsed on the field. Reportedly, the 24-year-old had suffered a cardiac arrest. However, moments after the incident, social media was stormed with claims that the sudden collapse was linked to COVID-19 vaccines.
Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene took to Twitter and said, “Before the covid vaccines we didn’t see athletes dropping dead on the playing field like we do now… Time to investigate the covid vaccines.”

In another tweet, former Newsmax correspondent Emerald Robinson, “Everybody knows what happened to Damar Hamlin because it’s happened to too many athletes around the world since COVID vaccination was required in sports.”
Such anti-vaccine claims linking the death of athletes with COVID-19 shots have been circulating for a while now.

The news of young MMA star Victoria Lee’s death also sparked the same anti-vaccination rhetoric claiming that the 18-year-old passed away due to COVID-19 vaccine sudden adult syndrome (SADS).

However, experts and doctors have continuously assessed these claims and have found that there is no warranted truth to it.

COVID infection, vaccines and cardiac risk

Dr Gurmeet Singh Chhabra, Director & HOD, deptt of Pulmonology, Marengo QRG Hospital, Faridabad says that there is no proven evidence to link COVID-19 vaccination with the cases of cardiac deaths. However, he refers to a research article from BMJ, where a rare possibility of myocarditis and pericarditis in a patient who had taken the mRNA vaccine have been noted.

The doctor however says a COVID infection is a more probable cause of inflammation in the body and the heart vessels rather than the vaccines. “The benefits of the vaccines really outweigh the risks,” he suggests.

Dr. Ankita Baidya, Consultant Infectious Disease, HCMCT Manipal Hospitals, Dwarka, says, “I don’t see any relation between COVID vaccine and the sudden death of young people around the world. During the lockdown people had a sedentary life which actually increases the cardiac risk, the second thing is COVID itself as a virus has a chance of making blood clots. So, even if somebody doesn’t remember that he has COVID because COVID is a viral infection that can also go as an asymptomatic viral infection but still it can have effects on the body.”

According to the doctor, COVID infection either symptomatic or asymptomatic can be related to the sudden cardiac events because we know it has the tendency but not the vaccine per se.

Furthermore, Dr Baidya notes that the stress level and the anxiety in the COVID era has gone up, which again has an adverse effect on our heart. “We had seen the effect of high blood pressure on the heart, similarly high-stress level also adversely on our heart,” she adds.

Are COVID vaccines safe?

“COVID vaccines are safe and effective,” says Dr Dimpu Edwin Jonathan, Consultant Interventional Cardiologist, Aster RV Hospital.

“All vaccines have undergone rigorous testing in clinical trials and have been tested on human volunteers before being certified for use in various countries. Although covid vaccine is new, the process of vaccine manufacturing (for e.g., using mRNA) has been a well-established technique for many years,” he adds.

However, the doctor shares that some people may have side effects after getting their COVID-19 vaccine, while others might have none.

“In rare cases, people have experienced serious health events after COVID-19 vaccination. Any health problem that happens after vaccination is considered an adverse event. An adverse event can be caused by the vaccine or can be caused by a coincidental event not related to the vaccine, such as an unrelated fever, that happened following vaccination,” he explains.

‘Serious adverse events are very rare’

According to Dr Edwin Jonathan, serious adverse events like Anaphylaxis, Thrombotic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (TTP), Myocarditis/Pericarditis, GBS are very rare and few in million occurrences and for all practical purposes be ignored.

“Ever since the rollout of vaccines, health authorities have been closely monitoring the adverse events using the Vaccine Adverse Reporting System (VAERS),” he added.

Therefore, anyone who has been administered vaccination, is carefully examined for any serious adverse events. So far, globally there has been no convincing data, irrespective of the type of vaccine administered, to implicate COVID vaccines as a cause for sudden deaths, the doctor shares.

The risk of sudden adult death syndrome (SADS); is it linked to COVID vaccines?

Also known as sudden cardiac death/sudden arrhythmic death syndrome, the term is used to describe unexpected cardiac death in young adults, says Dr Jonathan.

According to the doctor, it occurs most frequently in adults in their mid-30s to mid-40s, and affects men twice as often as it does women. It can also occur in people younger than that, such as teenage athletes who suddenly die while playing a sport.

When asked if there is any relation between SADS and COVID vaccines, the doctor responds: “SADS has existed long before the COVID-19 outbreak, and subsequent vaccines were available. It is usually something that runs in families where you see some kind of an acquired, either electrical problem, or something called a cardiomyopathy, which is a problem with the heart muscle, leading to sudden unexplained death in young individuals. Any condition that puts a strain on the heart or damages heart tissue can increase the risk of sudden death.”

Some conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac death in young people are:

– Thickened heart muscle

– Heart rhythm disorders

– Blunt chest injury
– Congenital heart defect

What to note?

According to Dr Chhabra, “It is very important to note the patient’s past history, to check if there is any past history of coronary artery disease or a family history or genetic history that can be a possible cause of sudden cardiac death in a patient rather than thinking it is because of COVID-19 vaccination.

“Any history of a long QT syndrome or Meretoja syndrome can make a patient prone to certain cardiac deaths. Furthermore, it is important to note what drugs (medicine) are they taking, what is their lifestyle, what is their weight, what is their BMI, what kind of exercise they are doing, how much they are doing and so on,” he adds emphasizing that all these factors must be taken into consideration before drawing conclusions about vaccination.