Coronavirus Found in Lungs of Victim During Autopsy a Month after Death

Coronavirus can be found in dead human tissue after almost a month, scientists have found. After performing an autopsy on a COVID-19 victim 27 days after death, researchers in the U.K. found SARS-CoV-2 present in the lungs, despite a nasal and throat swab taken after death testing negative for the virus.

The researchers, writing in BMJ Case Reports, say the discovery "may have a significant effect on the handling of laboratory specimens as well as the disposal of the dead body and these protocols need to be reviewed to reflect this finding."

The virus was found in the lungs of a man in his late fifties who had died with coronavirus after being brought into hospital following cardiac arrest. His medical history indicated he had been suffering with COVID-19, having had a fever and shortness of breath for 10 days—but swab samples came back negative.

Because of his medical history, a "limited diagnostic autopsy" was carried out 27 days later, and swabs were taken from his lungs. At this point, 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 coronavirus can survive in a dead body and whether it remains contagious in this state is not yet known. In April, a case of a coroner being infected by a deceased victim was reported in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine, but the paper was later retracted as 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 the subject of how long a virus can survive in the bodies of the deceased. In an interview with the university, he said that once the body dies, it cannot replicate anymore. However, it can remain infectious in the tissue for a given amount of time, he said. How long this may be will depend on factors such as which tissues are infected and what conditions they are stored in.

Preliminary research published in October showed the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in the eyeballs of victims. The virus was found during analysis of ocular tissues taken from 10 donors who had died from COVID-19. Researchers involved said the findings have important implications for donor screening for the coronavirus, although they said it is unclear if the virus could be transmitted through transplant.

In the BMJ report, researchers said understanding how long the live virus can survive in dead human tissue is a "key piece of information" that has widespread implications, from disease mitigation to the disposal of dead bodies.

"We believe that this is the first time that the virus has been shown to be detectable in lung tissue 27 days after death," they wrote.

"It is ... likely that the virus persists and remains viable in deceased bodies hence the need to wear appropriate personal protective equipment when handling bodies of deceased persons and during postmortem examinations."

Stock image representing a body in a morgue. Researchers carried out an autopsy on a COVID-19 victim a month after he died and found traces of the virus in his lungs. iStock