SAN ANTONIO – COVID-19 has been perceived as mainly a respiratory illness, but research is now showing one fifth of patients are experiencing severe heart damage.
More concerning to scientists is the fact that many of these patients have not had underlying heart problems, but seem to develop them after being infected with the virus.
A team at UT Health San Antonio is trying to figure out why some people’s hearts are affected and others aren’t.
It has already been clear to scientists and doctors that people with underlying heart issues who get COVID-19 have poor recovery outcomes.
But the people infected who develop heart issues are baffling researchers.
“They had elevations of blood enzyme markers that were consistent with a heart attack even though they didn’t have any blockages in their coronary arteries. They had heart rhythm disturbances, and this occurred with quite high provenance,” said UT Health San Antonio Chief of Cardiology Dr. Allen Anderson.
Anderson said 20%, sometimes up to 30% of patients are displaying these reactions.
Researchers at UT Health San Antonio Long School of Medicine set up a long term study to find out why this is happening and how to possibly stop it.
Anderson said researchers are taking into account similarities in heart complications from other viruses.
“We see this type of problem with other viruses. We saw this with other similar types. We saw this with SARS-1 and we also saw this to a high degree to the MERS, the Middle Eastern SARS virus,” he said. “We actually also see this with influenza. Many people don’t realize this. Influenza A and B occasionally present with severe problems, myocarditis, inflammation of the heart.”
Anderson said sometimes the symptoms are delayed, which is another reason a long-term study is important.
"We see patients who have likely had a viral infections they didn't even recognize and yet they manifest with heart failure symptoms months or years later. So there could be a long term implication to patients who have been affected by COVID-19," he said.
The study involves an antibiotic and a diabetes medication. Researchers believe both medications have the potential to block the virus from infecting heart cells.
Researchers are looking at isolated muscle cells in the lab right now and if all goes well, they will begin doing clinical trials with patients who have recovered from COVID-19.
“We are using innovative tools, such as super-resolution microscopes, to visualize how the virus enters the heart’s muscle cells, which are called cardiomyocytes,” said project leader, Dr. Madesh Muniswamy.
Depending on the outcome, researchers could track those patients for 10-15 years.
Anderson said these patients are very prone to developing blood clots. He said blood clots in the legs, lungs, and possibly even in the smallest, microscopic blood vessels, have been reported in North America.
Researchers will be studying that reaction as well.