While the bodies of the deceased play only a small role in the spread of pandemics, it is possible for corpses to cause infections in living individuals. In fact, according to two preprint documents published in MedRxiv and BioRxiv this year, the novel coronavirus can persist in cadavers for about two weeks and can retain its infectious potential during that time.

Infectious corpses

For years now, specialists have argued that infectious diseases—despite their transmissibility among the living—rarely linger long enough to jump from dead bodies to the living.

And although a few studies have identified small amounts of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in cadavers up to 17 days after death, scientists generally consider these traces too small to report significant threat of transmission.

Read more: What is the secret of the ‘super-sly’ COVID-19?

However, a team of researchers recently revealed that significant amounts of the coronavirus can survive in corpses for weeks, sometimes spreading to living individuals as a result.

This type of transmission is probably not common in the current coronavirus pandemic. But the researchers said this route of transmission may contribute in a small way to the spread of COVID-19 in hospitals and homes, where living people are more likely to come into contact with the dead.

Quantifying the threat of transmission

IN more recent of the two studies, researchers carefully examined samples from 11 cadavers who died due to COVID-19, identifying an abundance of the virus in six of the cadavers after a period of 13 days. Shockingly, the concentration of virus in the six bodies paralleled the concentration of virus seen in many living individuals infected with COVID-19.

“When death occurs due to rapidly worsening symptoms of COVID-19 or within a short period of time after infection with SARS-CoV-2, the likelihood that the infectious virus remains in the cadaver is high,” the researchers said in study. “Appropriate infection control measures must therefore be taken when handling carcasses.”

Reinforcing these results, the researchers also evaluated the bodies of rodents infected with the coronavirus in earlier from both studies. By placing the cadavers in close proximity to live rodents, they found that the bodies of the deceased creatures continued to transmit the disease, especially if they died shortly after their initial infection with COVID-19. According to the researchers, the same is true for people’s bodies.

The researchers found that if they they embalmed the deceased or covered him mouth and nose, they could stop the spread of the virus. But before these processes are completed, the researchers stress that people must be extremely careful when dealing with the dead.

In fact, although the risk of a dead body transmitting the coronavirus remains relatively low, this research shows that this type of transmission can pose a real risk to anyone tasked with caring for coronavirus-infected cadavers.

In the US, these are mostly pathologists and other medical professionals working in hospitals. But in other countries, this category also includes family and friends, thanks to cultural norms that guide the viewing, touching, and treatment of the dead.

“Appropriate care of SARS-CoV-2-infected cadavers is important,” the researchers concluded in first from both studies. “These results show that protection from infection is essential when working with infected cadavers.”

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