Man who drowned in Italy tested COVID positive for 41 days post his death

He was asymptomatic before drowning.
Ameya Paleja
Deceased man in morgueKatarzynaBialasiewicz/ iStock

A 41-year-old Ukrainian man went for a swim in the sea during rough weather and drowned. His corpse was found off the coast of Italy and tested positive for COVID-19 performed during the autopsy routine. Strangely, it remained positive for a total of 41 days until the man was finally buried, the Independent reported.

Since the pandemic broke out, researchers have been trying to understand how the SARS-CoV-2 virus behaves and spreads. While some researchers have tested for the length of its presence on surfaces such as plastic or metal, others have looked at how long it circulates in closed spaces such as cruise ship cabins.  Some researchers have wondered how long the virus can survive after it kills its host, while others such as the team at the Center for Advanced Studies and Technology (CAST) in Italy have wondered if the virus can actually spread through corpses. 

A routine autopsy

The body of the 41-year-old was found wedged between the rocks after he was reported missing by his friends who had gone swimming with him in the sea. Due to the ongoing pandemic,  a COVID-19 test had become part of the autopsy routine but the man who had been described asymptomatic prior to his death tested positive. 

While the death was confirmed due to the drowning, the corpse now had to be buried in line with COVID-19 guidelines in the country and shifted to a morgue where it was stored in a sealed and waterproof bag at 39 Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius). The long waiting period opened up a research opportunity to investigate how long the virus could survive. 

Over the next few days, the researchers continued to test the corpse just the way, anybody undergoes a COVID-19 test. Nasopharyngeal swabs from both nostrils were taken and the samples were transported to a testing lab where RT-PCR reactions were performed.  

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Stay positive

A total of 28 samples were taken over the next 41 days and were all found to be positive. To be certain, the researchers also retested all the samples with a reagent kit from another supplier but found the same result.

Researchers often run a control test to verify that test results are indeed coming from the samples being tested. In this case, they tested for a gene sequence from human cells that accompany the virus particles when a swab is taken. Interestingly, after 41 days, the cell control from human cells stopped being detected, however, the SARS-CoV-2 continued to be detectable. 

The testing drew to a close since the burial authorizations for the corpse came through and it was no longer possible to collect samples beyond this point. 

The researchers thus concluded that the virus remains active for prolonged periods even after the death of its host and highlight that there is still a risk of infection from a corpse. What makes this interesting is that the individual was classified as asymptomatic prior to this death and is likely to have had a low viral load throughout this period. 

The researchers also call for postmortem swabs to be carried out for all autopsies. Details of the study can be found in the Journal of Medical Case Reports


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