Scientists have found that the coronavirus can be found in dead human tissue after almost a month. After an autopsy was performed 27 days after the death of a COVID-19 victim, researchers in the UK found that SARS-CoV-2 was present in the lungs, although a post-mortem nasal and throat swab tested negative for the virus.
The researchers write in BMJ case reports that the discovery “may have a significant impact on the handling of laboratory samples and the disposal of the body, and that these protocols need to be reviewed to take this finding into account.
The virus was found in the lungs of a man in his late fifties who died with the coronavirus after being taken to hospital after a cardiac arrest. His medical history indicated that he had suffered from COVID-19 after 10 days of fever and shortness of breath – but the swab samples came back negative.
Based on his medical history, a “limited diagnostic autopsy” was performed 27 days later and swabs were taken from his lungs. At that time, the virus was found.
“[This] proves that the virus can be detected from dead human tissue almost a month later,” the researchers wrote.
How long the corona virus can survive in a dead body and whether it remains contagious in this state is not yet known. In April, the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine reported a case in which a coroner was infected by a dead victim, but the work was later withdrawn because it was unclear whether the coroner had caught the virus from the dead body.
In May, Matthew Koci, a virologist and immunologist from North Carolina State University, discussed how long a virus can survive in the bodies of the deceased. In an interview with the university, he said that when the body dies, it can no longer reproduce. However, it can remain infectious in the tissue for a certain period of time, he said. How long this can be depends, among other things, on which tissues are infected and under what conditions they are stored.
Preliminary studies published in October showed the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in the eyeballs of victims. The virus was found in the analysis of eye tissues from 10 donors who had died of COVID-19. The researchers involved said the results had important implications for the screening of donors for corona virus, although they said it was unclear whether the virus could be transmitted by transplantation.
In the BMJ report, the researchers said that understanding how long the living virus can survive in dead human tissue is a “key piece of information” that has far-reaching implications, from containing the disease to disposing of the cadavers.
“We believe that this is the first time that the virus has been detectable in lung tissue 27 days after death,” they wrote.
“It is … likely that the virus persists and remains viable in deceased bodies, so appropriate personal protective equipment must be worn when handling the bodies of deceased persons and during autopsy”.