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Zombie COVID: Corpses can still spread the virus for weeks after death, study finds

December 17, 2022, 11:30 AM UTC
Infectious virus was present in “large amounts” in cadavers of COVID victims up to 13 days after death.
Artur Widak—NurPhoto/Getty Images

Just because a COVID patient dies doesn’t mean the virus in their body does.

A recent study by researchers in Japan that has yet to be peer reviewed found that infectious virus was present in “large amounts” in cadavers of COVID victims up to 13 days after death. Meanwhile, a March 2021 study out of Germany came to a similar conclusion—that COVID virus can exist in corpses up to 17 days after death.

It was already known that the virus can remain infectious on surfaces for extended periods of time. Multiple studies have indicated that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID, can last up to three days on household surfaces like stainless steel, plastic, and glass, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, mortuary workers have been advised to handle bodies of COVID casualties with caution, and to wear protective equipment while doing so. For those who merely attend funerals, the greatest risk of catching COVID at them is from other attendees who have the virus—not from a corpse.

“There is currently no known risk associated with being in the same room at a funeral or visitation service with the body of someone who died of COVID-19,” the CDC wrote in April. “However, being in crowded or poorly ventilated indoor spaces may make you more likely to get sick if people around you are infected.”

Ebola is known to spread at funerals, during which family members and others touch or wash a cadaver during religious rights, or distribute the deceased’s personal property, according to the World Health Organization. That’s because the body and items continue to carry the virus.

It’s not just the airways of COVID casualties that can harbor the virus. A study published this week in the journal Nature found SARS-CoV-2 in 84 distinct anatomical body locations and fluids in the bodies of 44 unvaccinated individuals who had died with COVID-19 (though not necessarily of it). Those locations included the brain, plasma, the heart, lymph nodes, adrenal gland, and eyes.

In one case, a patient who died with COVID 230 days following the onset of symptoms still had the virus in multiple locations in their body upon autopsy, according to the study.

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