Coronavirus Spreads from Dead Body in First Reported Case of Its Kind | Updated

Update: The authors of the letter on which this article is based have since issued a correction to say they did not confirm disease transmission from a corpse. "The authors regret that the article might not have good writing for clarification in the primary text and it might result in misinterpretation," they wrote in a corrigendum published by the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, where the letter originally appeared.

"The authors did not mean to suggest that the victim had died, and that the authors do not know for sure and cannot scientifically confirm that the virus moved from the dead body," they wrote, adding: "The authors would like to apologize for any inconvenience caused." The article below has not been updated or amended.

A medical examiner has died from coronavirus after catching it from a dead body in what is believed to be the first case of its kind.

The forensic practitioner worked in the Thai capital of Bangkok, according to a letter published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine. Further details, including their name and age, were not provided.

Newsweek subscription offers >

Won Sriwijitalai of Bangkok's RVT Medical Center and Viroj Wiwanitkit of India's DY Patil University, co-wrote the letter. "According to our best knowledge, this is the first report on COVID-19 infection and death among medical personnel in a forensic medicine unit," they wrote.

The letter was written on March 20, when there were 272 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Thailand, including two medical personnel: the forensic medicine professional and a nursing assistant.

According to Johns Hopkins University, the number of confirmed cases in Thailand has since hit 2,613. Worldwide, more than 1.9 million people have been diagnosed with COVID-19, almost 120,000 have died and over 457,500 have recovered. As shown in the map by Statista below, the coronavirus has reached almost every country in the world.

coronavirus, map, covid-19, countries, world
A graphic provided by Statista shows the global spread of the new coronavirus as of early April 9. More than 1.5 million people have been afflicted, over 346,000 of whom have recovered and over 93,000 of whom have died. Statista

Newsweek subscription offers >

Sriwijitalai and Wiwanitkit said that when the forensic examiner caught the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, most cases in Thailand were imported and the bug was not spreading widely in the community. In addition, "there is low chance of forensic medicine professionals coming into contact with infected patients, but they can have contact with biological samples and corpses," they said.

"At present, there is no data on the exact number of COVID-19 contaminated corpses since it is not a routine practice to examine for COVID-19 in dead bodies in Thailand. Nevertheless, infection control and universal precautions are necessary."

coronavirus, covid19, thailand, getty,
Nurses, unrelated to the death, wear protective hospital equipment as they wait to test people for coronavirus (COVID-19) at a drive through service at Ramkhamhaeng Hospital on March 19, 2020 in Bangkok, Thailand. Tim de Waele/Getty Images

They advised forensic professionals to wear protective clothing, including a suit, gloves, goggles, cap and masks when working, and pathology and forensic units must follow disinfection procedures on corpses used in operating rooms.

Angelique Corthals, professor of pathology at the City University of New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who was not involved in the case, told BuzzFeed News: "Not just the medical examiners, but morgue technicians and the people in funeral homes need to take extra care."

Summer Johnson McGee, a health policy expert at the University of New Haven, also told BuzzFeed News that anyone coming into contact with a body that had tested positive for coronavirus, "dead or alive," should wear personal protective equipment to avoid spreading the virus.

"Autopsies and subsequent investigations present real risks for coroners to acquire COVID-19," she said.

In interim guidance on how to safely manage the corpses of COVID-19 victims published in late March, the World Health Organization said dead bodies are generally not infectious, except in cases of hemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola and Marburg, or if the lungs of patients with pandemic influenza are not handled properly.

"To date there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from COVID-19," the WHO said.

"These recommendations are subject to revision as new evidence becomes available," the UN agency said.

Wiwanitkit told Newsweek it remains unclear if the patient caught the virus from their work, as noted in the article. However, he said the case could be useful for those planning safety protocols for the management of dead bodies.

Wiwanitkit said the potential spread of the coronavirus from corpses is "an important forgotten issue in [the] present crisis of COVID-19."

This article has been updated with comment from Viroj Wiwanitkit.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Advice on Using Face Coverings to Slow Spread of COVID-19

  • CDC recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
  • A simple cloth face covering can help slow the spread of the virus by those infected and by those who do not exhibit symptoms.
  • Cloth face coverings can be fashioned from household items. Guides are offered by the CDC. (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html)
  • Cloth face coverings should be washed regularly. A washing machine will suffice.
  • Practice safe removal of face coverings by not touching eyes, nose, and mouth, and wash hands immediately after removing the covering.

World Health Organization advice for avoiding spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

Hygiene advice

  • Clean hands frequently with soap and water, or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wash hands after coughing or sneezing; when caring for the sick; before, during and after food preparation; before eating; after using the toilet; when hands are visibly dirty; and after handling animals or waste.
  • Maintain at least 1 meter (3 feet) distance from anyone who is coughing or sneezing.
  • Avoid touching your hands, nose and mouth. Do not spit in public.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or bent elbow when coughing or sneezing. Discard the tissue immediately and clean your hands.

Medical advice

  • Avoid close contact with others if you have any symptoms.
  • Stay at home if you feel unwell, even with mild symptoms such as headache and runny nose, to avoid potential spread of the disease to medical facilities and other people.
  • If you develop serious symptoms (fever, cough, difficulty breathing) seek medical care early and contact local health authorities in advance.
  • Note any recent contact with others and travel details to provide to authorities who can trace and prevent spread of the disease.
  • Stay up to date on COVID-19 developments issued by health authorities and follow their guidance.

Mask and glove usage

  • Healthy individuals only need to wear a mask if taking care of a sick person.
  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.
  • Masks are effective when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning.
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it. Clean hands if you touch the mask.
  • Learn how to properly put on, remove and dispose of masks. Clean hands after disposing of the mask.
  • Do not reuse single-use masks.
  • Regularly washing bare hands is more effective against catching COVID-19 than wearing rubber gloves.
  • The COVID-19 virus can still be picked up on rubber gloves and transmitted by touching your face.
Coronavirus Spreads from Dead Body in First Reported Case of Its Kind | Updated | Health