Do Vaccines Cause Myocarditis and/or Myocardopathy?

Updated March 20, 2023



Myocarditis can be induced by either viral or bacterial infection, notably developing in up to two thirds of persons infected with diphtheria. Thus, diphtheria vaccine prevents myocarditis by protecting against natural infection. Smallpox vaccine can very rarely cause myocardopathy, but smallpox vaccine is not routinely recommended to the general population in the United States. mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines can rarely cause myocarditis among males 12-17 and can very rarely cause myocarditis among females and among males in other age groups. mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines also very rarely cause pericarditis after the booster dose. However, SARS-COV-2 infection also causes myocarditis and pericarditis, and that risk is lowered with COVID-19 immunization. Additionally, the prognosis of myocarditis and pericarditis from mRNA vaccines is generally good, with most persons recovering quickly [1]. Vaccine induced myocarditis appears less severe that myocarditis caused by other factors [2].

Epidemiological Evidence

The 2012 report by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), now called the National Academy of Medicine (NAM), found no relevant studies of quality in the literature assessing myocarditis and diphtheria, tetanus or pertussis vaccines [3].

One study published since this report of 193,083 adults at least 50 years of age found no association between zoster vaccine and myocarditis using both case-centered and self-controlled case series analyses [4]. A VSD study of 438,487 live births between 2007 and 2013 found no increased risk of cardiac events such as cardiomyopathy, myocarditis, pericarditis, or heart failure among pregnant women receiving Tdap vaccination [5].

U.S. military personnel administered smallpox vaccine had almost 7.5 times higher incidence of myopericarditis in the 30 days post vaccination than non-vaccinated active-duty military personnel (16.11 per 100,000 vaccinees versus 2.16 per 100,000 non-vaccinees) [6]. A 2015 prospective cohort study also found an increased risk of myocarditis/pericarditis after smallpox vaccine, but no cases of myocarditis after receipt of trivalent inactivated influenza vaccine [7].

mRNA COVID-19 vaccines have been shown to rarely cause myocarditis, most frequently among males aged 12-17 after their second dose. Estimates of incidence vary by study but have mostly ranged between about 1 case per 2,500 to 1 case per 10,000 among males aged 12-17 after their second dose. A Canadian study of adolescents 12-17 years of age found the highest risk among males 16 and 17 years old after dose 2 (15.7 per 100,000)[8]. Estimates of incidence are lower after the first and booster doses, among males of other age groups, and among females. The risk of myocarditis seems to be about twice as high for Moderna compared to Pfizer vaccines [9, 10]. However, it is difficult to make direct comparisons and combine data between studies on this topic, due to variability in the populations and vaccines studied, the methods used for case ascertainment and study design, how associations are reported, and study limitations. In particular, much of the available data are not adequately stratified by age and sex. An increased risk of pericarditis has also been shown after the second dose of mRNA Covid-19 vaccines, though less common than myocarditis and more evenly distribute between sexes and age groups [11].

Proposed Biological Mechanism

Myocarditis often results from a prolonged immune response induced by viral infection [12]. In persons infected with Corynebacterium diphtheria, myocarditis due to the effects of the exotoxin released by the bacteria occurs in up to half or more, and increases the risk of death. As the diphtheria vaccine does not contain active toxin, there is no risk of myocarditis through that mechanism. Other mechanisms that could contribute to myocarditis include autoantibodies or T cells [3].

The IOM concluded that there was no mechanistic evidence for an association between myocarditis and tetanus or pertussis containing vaccines [3].

COVID-19 mRNA Vaccine

The mechanism through which the mRNA vaccines lead to myocarditis are not well understood. While viral infections, including infection with SARS-CoV-2 can lead to myocarditis, in some cases due to infection of the myocardial cells with the virus [13] this is not true of the vaccine, which is not a live virus. The few cardiac biopsies performed in people with myocarditis after an mRNA SARS-CoV-2 vaccine did not find evidence of the vaccine mRNA or spike protein in the affected heart muscles [14, 15]. Several hypotheses are proposed. The first is that in a very small number of people, there is molecular mimicry- that is the immune response to the vaccine is targeting proteins within the heart that are not targeted in most persons [16-18]. Another is that, again, very rarely, the vaccine stimulates overactivation of the immune system that leads to inflammation of the heart muscle.

As noted above, the smallpox vaccine, which is not routinely recommended, has been shown to cause myocarditis. The mechanism is thought to be due to a strong inflammatory response to the live, replicating vaccine, leading to myocardial damage and myonecrosis [19]. This has not been seen following the non-replicating monkeypox vaccine.


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Additional References of Interest

Klein NP, Lewis N, Goddard K, et al. Surveillance for Adverse Events After COVID-19 mRNA Vaccination. JAMA. Oct 12 2021;326(14):1390-1399. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.15072

Sharff KA, Dancoes DM, Longueil JL, Johnson ES, Lewis PF. Risk of myopericarditis following COVID-19 mRNA vaccination in a large integrated health system: A comparison of completeness and timeliness of two methods. Pharmacoepidemiology and drug safety. Aug 2022;31(8):921-925. doi:10.1002/pds.5439

Block JP, Boehmer TK, Forrest CB, et al. Cardiac Complications After SARS-CoV-2 Infection and mRNA COVID-19 Vaccination – PCORnet, United States, January 2021-January 2022. MMWR Morbidity and mortality weekly report. Apr 8 2022;71(14):517-523. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm7114e1

Patone M, Mei XW, Handunnetthi L, et al. Risks of myocarditis, pericarditis, and cardiac arrhythmias associated with COVID-19 vaccination or SARS-CoV-2 infection. Nat Med. Feb 2022;28(2):410-422. doi:10.1038/s41591-021-01630-0

Nygaard U, Petersen A, Larsen AR, et al. Fatal SARS-CoV-2-Associated Panton-Valentine Leukocidin-producing Staphylococcal Bacteremia: A Nationwide Multicenter Cohort Study. The Pediatric infectious disease journal. Apr 1 2022;41(4):e142-e145. doi:10.1097/INF.0000000000003476

Karlstad O, Hovi P, Husby A, et al. SARS-CoV-2 Vaccination and Myocarditis in a Nordic Cohort Study of 23 Million Residents. JAMA Cardiol. Jun 1 2022;7(6):600-612. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2022.0583

Barda N, Dagan N, Ben-Shlomo Y, et al. Safety of the BNT162b2 mRNA Covid-19 Vaccine in a Nationwide Setting. N Engl J Med. Sep 16 2021;385(12):1078-1090. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa2110475

Dagan N, Barda N, Balicer RD. Adverse Effects after BNT162b2 Vaccine and SARS-CoV-2 Infection, According to Age and Sex. N Engl J Med. Dec 9 2021;385(24):2299. doi:10.1056/NEJMc2115045

Witberg G, Barda N, Hoss S, et al. Myocarditis after Covid-19 Vaccination in a Large Health Care Organization. N Engl J Med. Oct 6 2021;doi:10.1056/NEJMoa2110737

Mevorach D, Anis E, Cedar N, et al. Myocarditis after BNT162b2 Vaccination in Israeli Adolescents. N Engl J Med. Jan 26 2022;doi:10.1056/NEJMc2116999

Li X, Lai FTT, Chua GT, et al. Myocarditis Following COVID-19 BNT162b2 Vaccination Among Adolescents in Hong Kong. JAMA pediatrics. Jun 1 2022;176(6):612-614. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2022.0101

Chua GT, Kwan MYW, Chui CSL, et al. Epidemiology of Acute Myocarditis/Pericarditis in Hong Kong Adolescents Following Comirnaty Vaccination. Clinical infectious diseases : an official publication of the Infectious Diseases Society of America. Sep 10 2022;75(4):673-681. doi:10.1093/cid/ciab989

Lai FTT, Li X, Peng K, et al. Carditis After COVID-19 Vaccination With a Messenger RNA Vaccine and an Inactivated Virus Vaccine : A Case-Control Study. Annals of internal medicine. Mar 2022;175(3):362-370. doi:10.7326/M21-3700

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