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Study: Coronavirus spreads quickly throughout body, can linger in organs for months

US National Institutes of Health finds SARS-CoV-2 disseminates widely even in people who have asymptomatic illness

SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. (NIAID-RML via AP)
SARS-CoV-2 virus particles, which cause COVID-19, isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in a lab. (NIAID-RML via AP)

New research has found that not only can the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 spread throughout the body to a range of organs outside the respiratory system, but it can also remain there for months after the initial infection.

The US National Institutes of Health study found that the virus can “disseminate early during infection and infect cells throughout the entire body.”

Organs in danger of infection include the brain, ocular tissue, muscles, skin, peripheral nerves as well as tissue in the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, reproductive, endocrine and lymphoid systems.

The study was published Saturday as a pre-print manuscript.

Autopsies were performed on 44 bodies of people who died either of the virus or while infected with it, up to 230 days after they showed initial symptoms of COVID-19. The virus was found in all 44 bodies and in 79 out of 85 anatomical areas and body fluids sampled.

It was found widely distributed even in people who had died of other causes and who had had mild or asymptomatic COVID-19.

Infections were most prominent in the respiratory system, but results showed that the virus can “disseminate early during infection and infect cells throughout the entire body, including widely throughout the brain, as well as in ocular tissue, muscles, skin, peripheral nerves and tissues in the cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, endocrine and lymphatic systems.

“Our data support an early viremic phase,” the researchers wrote, referring to the presence of viruses in the blood, “which seeds the virus throughout the body following pulmonary infection.”

The results may help explain cases of so-called “long COVID” in which recovered coronavirus patients continue to suffer a range of health issues long after being given a clean bill of health.

The study was performed during the first year of the pandemic before vaccines were available, and so did not examine the influence of inoculation on the virus’s spread.

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