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Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found the virus can spread widely from the respiratory tract to almost every other organ in the body and linger for months.
The researchers described the study as the “most comprehensive analysis to date” of the virus’s persistence throughout the body and brain. They performed autopsies on 44 patients who died either from or with COVID-19 to map and quantify virus distribution across the body.
Daniel Chertow, principal investigator in the NIH’s emerging pathogens section, said along with his colleagues that RNA from the virus was found in patients up to 230 days after symptom onset.
The findings, released online Saturday in a pre-print manuscript, shed new light on patients who suffer from so-called “long COVID-19.”
The study found that the virus had replicated across multiple organ systems even among patients with asymptomatic to mild COVID-19.
The virus was detected in all 44 cases and across 79 of 85 anatomical locations and body fluids sampled.
While the “highest burden” of infection was in the lungs and airway, the study showed the virus can “disseminate early during infection and infect cells throughout the entire body,” including in 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, which seeds the virus throughout the body following pulmonary infection,” the researchers wrote.
The implications of long COVID-19 are still not fully understood, though the issue is likely to persist for years.
For example, it’s still not clear what, if any, issues fully vaccinated people will have if they get infected. The study was conducted on the bodies of people who died in the first year of the pandemic before vaccines were available.