The death of a man in his 20s has been linked to a rare reaction to the Covid-19 vaccine by an independent board tasked to monitor its safety, but they emphasise the virus itself posed a higher risk.
The Covid-19 Vaccine Independent Safety Monitoring Board (CVISMB) met earlier this month to discuss the deaths of three people after receiving the Pfizer vaccination, and released a statement about its findings today.
The board's role is to consider the likelihood of medical events being linked to the vaccine, but it cannot make a formal ruling about the cause of death, because this is the role of the coroner.
As well as the man in his 20s, it considered the deaths of a man in his 60s and a 13-year-old. All three deaths were reported to the board because they had signs of myocarditis - inflammation of the heart muscle.
"Some Covid-19 vaccines, including the Pfizer vaccine, increase the risk of myocarditis... [but] Covid-19 infection increases the risk of myocarditis substantially more than vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine," the board said.
It also noted myocarditis is treatable, with better outcomes the earlier treatment begins.
In July, Medsafe issued an alert describing myocarditis as a rare side effect of the Pfizer vaccine.
The 26-year-old man who died had no previous reported symptoms of myocarditis before getting the vaccine, but developed them in the days after his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, the board's statement said.
He did not seek any medical help and died 12 days after he was vaccinated.
Preliminary findings from his post-mortem supplied to the board indicated myocarditis as the probable cause of his death. And after considering the details, the board found "myocarditis was probably due to vaccination in this individual".
It concluded the myocarditis symptoms of the man in his 60s were "unlikely related to vaccination". "The time from vaccination to the onset of symptoms and clinical factors point to other causes and is not consistent with a causal link".
The board said it discussed the death of the 13-year-old "at length", and requested more information before making a decision. It expects its eventual findings will be made public once they are finalised.
In August the board released details of a woman whose death may have been caused by myocarditis following the vaccination. It has been treated as the first death connected to the Covid-19 vaccine in New Zealand.
Each year, an average of 95 people are seen in hospitals with myocarditis. The disease can be caused by many things, including infection by a virus.
The board said the cases did not alter the current knowledge about the vaccination or myocarditis; "The benefits of vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19 continue to greatly outweigh the risk of such rare side effects."
However myocarditis should continue to be highlighted as a very rare side effect, and people should be reminded of its symptoms, and when to seek medical advice.
"The symptoms of myocarditis may include chest pain, tightness or discomfort, shortness of breath or abnormal heartbeat (and/or accompanied by fever)."
The board acknowledged the family, whānau and friends of those who had died, and offered its sympathies.
Immunologist says case a reminder to watch for symptoms, get the vaccine
Immunologist and director of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research professor Graham Le Gros said despite the man's death the risk of myocarditis is very small and evidence is clear that getting the Covid-19 vaccine is the smart choice.
"This is a terrible tragedy, which alerts people - particularly males under 30 - to be aware that if they're not feeling well after the vaccine, to go see a doctor and get some medication that can dampen down the myocarditis.
"We know there is significant risk of myocarditis occurring following infection with the Covid-19 virus in some patients. There is a very much smaller risk of people developing myocarditis following a vaccine.
"That's why I want the vaccine out there to stop a far higher number of virus-related myocarditis events, which we'll get if we allow the virus to run rampant in the community."