Unveiling the Mysteries of COVID-19: Insights from Postmortem Autopsies and Viral Persistence


The Coronaviridae family of viruses, while often causing mild infections, can also unleash severe respiratory syndromes with high mortality rates.

The most recent and globally recognized member of this family is SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic that began in December 2019 in Wuhan, China. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) in January 2020, followed by its classification as a pandemic in March 2020.

This article delves into the world of postmortem examinations conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic and sheds light on the mysteries surrounding the pathomechanism of the disease and its impact on various age groups.

A New Approach to Autopsy Studies

Postmortem examinations are vital in uncovering the factors leading to death, especially during a pandemic. These examinations differ significantly from standard clinical autopsies, as they typically involve sudden deaths with unclear circumstances.

The Department of Forensic Medicine in Szczecin, Poland, conducted autopsies at the request of the Prosecutor’s Office on individuals who died suddenly, often in their homes. These autopsies aimed to exclude or confirm the involvement of third parties in the deaths.

Understanding the Persistence of SARS-CoV-2 in the Body

One of the intriguing aspects of SARS-CoV-2 is its persistence in the human body after death. While studies have shown the presence of the virus’s genetic material in individuals infected for more than five months, questions remain about the virus’s viability and potential as an infectious agent. Viral survival depends on factors such as temperature and humidity.

Studies on other RNA viruses like influenza have demonstrated the detection of viral RNA genomes in frozen bodies for decades. The Ebola virus, another RNA virus, remained detectable for extended periods in test samples from deceased individuals. Similar investigations have been conducted on SARS-CoV-2, revealing that its genetic material persists in tissues for over 30 days.

The Implications of Viral RNA Persistence

The persistence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in deceased individuals has raised concerns about the potential for postmortem transmission. The unique structure of SARS-CoV-2’s genome, with its positive RNA strand polarity, makes it directly infectious. This characteristic warrants considering the use of molecular tests (such as RT-PCR) for all bodies delivered to forensic medicine departments during a pandemic. Postmortem virological tests could help track the virus’s migration within the body and assess the risk of infection transmission to autopsy staff or family members.

Unraveling the Mystery of Sudden Deaths in Children

Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) has long puzzled medical professionals. Its causes are not fully understood, with theories suggesting links to the immaturity of a child’s respiratory system. However, could viral infections, such as COVID-19, play a role in overlapping with SIDS?

Findings from Postmortem Autopsies

Research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic led to compelling conclusions. The SARS-CoV-2 virus was identified as the cause of death in all cases analyzed, supported by molecular tests and histopathological analyses confirming COVID-19 disease. In infants, suspicions arose that chronic viral infections might coincide with SIDS, indicated by characteristic lung pathology in these cases. Autopsies of elderly individuals also revealed chronic inflammatory processes and lung tissue fibrosis. Further studies have explored the virus’s impact on the heart muscle.

Challenges Faced by the Medical and Forensic Community

The global health service and the medico-forensic community faced significant challenges during the pandemic. These challenges led some countries, such as Italy, to issue guidelines waiving autopsies for suspected COVID-19 cases. However, autopsy studies have been crucial in understanding the pathophysiology and mechanisms of death due to COVID-19, aiding in epidemic control and shedding light on clotting disorders associated with the disease.

The Complex World of SARS-CoV-2 Diagnostics

SARS-CoV-2 diagnostic methods have their intricacies. The standard RT-PCR test is primarily performed using nasopharyngeal swabs. However, false negatives can occur, as demonstrated in the case of a 67-year-old man with a negative nasopharyngeal swab but a positive lung swab. The concentration of viral RNA in the upper respiratory tract varies throughout the course of infection, complicating diagnosis. The use of bronchoalveolar lavage as a diagnostic standard is hindered by its invasiveness.

Genetic Mutations and Diagnostic Challenges

SARS-CoV-2 exhibits genetic plasticity, with numerous mutations since its emergence. Mutations can affect virulence and transmission. Notably, different patients in the study exhibited varying viral expressions in nasopharyngeal swabs and lung tissue. The relationship between viral load and age remains uncertain, with CT values for children comparable to those for adults.

The Urgent Need for Postmortem Molecular Diagnostics

In conclusion, postmortem molecular diagnostics for SARS-CoV-2 is of paramount importance. The persistence of viral genetic material in the body presents a potential risk of infection. Furthermore, the nature of deaths during a pandemic can be elusive, necessitating comprehensive autopsy analysis. Strict adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols and standard procedures is crucial to mitigate risks. Integrating molecular tests with macroscopic and histopathological analyses is essential for a more profound understanding of COVID-19’s impact on diverse populations.

SARS-CoV-2 continues to challenge our understanding, and ongoing research remains crucial in the fight against this insidious virus. The observed differences in pediatric cases and potential connections to SIDS open new avenues for exploration. Further extensive research is needed to verify these hypotheses and provide comprehensive insights into the multifaceted nature of COVID-19.

reference link : https://www.mdpi.com/2075-4418/13/18/2980


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