When will we see ICMR report on possible Covid link to heart failure?
Though both the ICMR director-general and union health minister have been highlighting the research for several months, no concrete outcome is in sight yet
The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has once again reiterated that it is conducting "two studies" to understand the reasons behind “sudden deaths” of youngsters from heart failure, and whether there may be a Covid link to them. However, though both ICMR director-general Dr Rajiv Bahl and union health minister Mansukh Mandaviya have been highlighting this research for several months, there is no concrete outcome in sight yet.
Speaking on the sidelines of a WHO Global Traditional Medicine Summit (GCTM) held on Thursday and Friday in Gandhinagar, Bahl said the medical research body was looking at the recent spate of sudden deaths that seem to be occurring for no apparent reason. The studies are aimed to help the country understand the long-term effects of Covid-19 and the repercussions of the outbreak.
In June 2023, however, Bahl had said the results of the ICMR study on a possible link between heart failure in young individuals and Covid-19 vaccines would be published "within two weeks". He then claimed that ICMR was waiting for the paper to be peer reviewed before the findings were made public. However, nothing has emerged so far.
In the interim, Bahl has also said that there were to be four studies on the sudden rise in heart failures and their possible link to Covid-19 vaccines. The first was to understand reasons for the sudden deaths among younger people, the second was to gauge if sudden heart failure is a result of vaccination and long Covid, the third was on whether the deaths were owing to heart failure or brain stroke, while the fourth would look into people who suffered myocardial infarction (heart failure) but survived.
Meanwhile, responding to questions asked by BJP MPs Ravindra Kushwaha and Khagen Murmu in Parliament in July, Mandaviya had said ICMR was conducting "three studies" to understand the rising cases of cardiac arrests following Covid-19. “Sudden deaths have been reported in some youth after Covid-19. However, at present, sufficient evidence is not available to confirm the cause of such deaths,” Mandaviya had said.
On March 29, three months before Bahl’s July statement, Mandaviya had said ICMR was conducting "a study" on the sudden rise in cardiac events post Covid-19. He had said that the study had already begun and the findings could be expected in two months. “I have had meetings with the scientists on this issue and ICMR has started the study. Vaccination and comorbidity data is available with us," Mandaviya had said then.
In December 2022, at a health summit in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi, Mandaviya had claimed that the ICMR research on whether there was a co-relation between sudden heart failure and Covid-19 would take "another six months" to complete, with scientists such as Dr Nivedita and Dr Tanveer Kaur being part of the research team.
Given the variable nature of the statements from both the ICMR chief and the minister, the exact number of studies being conducted as well as their current status is difficult to determine. Neither does there seem to be any indication when a report can finally be expected.
Bahl says they are looking into deaths in the 18–45 age group, with the country’s top medical research body reportedly studying 50 autopsy reports at New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), and hoping to study another 100 within an unspecified time frame.
According to him, ICMR's research is studying the autopsy reports to see if the deceased underwent physiological changes which could have triggered their deaths. “We are trying to understand the reasons or differences when we compare results from these autopsies to those before Covid,” he said.
In its second case-controlled study, ICMR will reportedly use data from 40 centres countrywide, which have followed up with Covid patients for a year after their discharge from hospital, and have recorded data regarding admissions, discharges, and deaths. The study will also focus on survivors who lived in the same neighbourhood as the deceased. They will be the control group for comparison.
Bahl explained they were interviewing people with similar profiles based on gender, age, family medical history, use of tobacco, lifestyle, Covid history and vaccination.
A study published in Nature Medicine in February 2022, which used healthcare databases from the US, found that individuals with Covid-19 are at increased risk of incident cardiovascular disease spanning several categories, including cerebrovascular disorders, dysrhythmia, ischemic and non-ischemic heart disease, pericarditis, myocarditis, heart failure and thromboembolic disease.
“These risks and burdens were evident even among individuals who were not hospitalised during the acute phase of the infection. There is evidence that the risk and one-year burden of cardiovascular disease in survivors of acute COVID-19 are substantial,” stated the study.