COVID autopsies reveal virus spreads through ‘whole body’: ScienceAlert

COVID-19 is defined as a respiratory infection, but the effects of the new coronavirus are certainly not limited to one organ.

Dozens of recent autopsies show persistent evidence of SARS-CoV-2 throughout the body, including in the lungs, heart, spleen, kidneys, liver, colon, thorax, muscles, nerves, reproductive organs, the eye, and the brain.

In one particular autopsy, remnants of the novel coronavirus were found in the brain of a deceased patient 230 days after they first started showing symptoms.

“Our data indicate that in some patients SARS-CoV-2 can cause systemic infection and persist in the body for several months,” conclude the authors of the study, led by researchers at the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH).

In the past, autopsies of those who have contracted COVID-19 have shown preliminary signs of multi-organ spread, with genetic remnants of the virus turning up in a myriad of tissues, organs and fluids.

In July 2020, further autopsies showed evidence of blood clots in nearly all vital organs of those who had contracted COVID-19.

The new NIH research now replicates and confirms these results in greater detail than ever before.

The researchers suggest that their latest findings are the most comprehensive analysis to date of the cellular persistence of SARS-CoV-2 in the human body.

The study involved 44 autopsies, where researchers carefully detected and quantified the level of messenger RNA from SARS-CoV-2 in 85 sites and fluids. This genetic information is an indication of where the virus may have replicated during a person’s life.

From autopsies performed in April 2020 to March 2021, researchers found that elderly, unvaccinated individuals who died of covid-19 showed abundant signs of SARS-CoV-2 replication in a total of 79 sites and body fluids.

Also, some of the changes were evident within two weeks of symptoms first appearing.

Interestingly, while the lungs showed the most inflammation and damage, the brain and other organs did not often show significant tissue changes “despite significant viral load”.

The authors are not sure why that is. For example, it may be that the human immune system is not as good at targeting these other sites compared to the lungs.

In later stages of recovery from COVID-19, researchers found evidence that the lungs were less infected than they were initially, while other sites did not show nearly as much improvement.

“Our results show that although the highest burden of SARS-CoV-2 is in the respiratory tract, the virus can spread throughout the body,” the researchers conclude.

How the virus spread so far is another mystery to be solved. The autopsies in the current study did not often show detectable viral residues in blood plasma, suggesting that the pathogen may travel by other means.

Understanding the way SARS-CoV-2 spreads and persists in the human body can reveal a lot about why some patients suffer from long-distance COVID-19.

The NIH study did not specifically experiment with long-term COVID patients, but the results are relevant to possible treatment plans.

Antivirals, such as Paxlovid, for example, can help the human immune system clear viral cells from tissues, organs and fluids that may otherwise be difficult to reach.

Perhaps that, in turn, can help to reduce lingering symptoms.

“We hope to replicate the data on viral persistence and study the relationship with long-term COVID,” says one of the authors, Stephen Hewitt, of the National Cancer Institute.

“Less than a year, we have about 85 cases, and we are working to expand this effort.”

The study was published in Nature.

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