COVID-19 virus found in the brain: autopsies reveal shocking new information; tissue samples from 44 COVID-19 fatalities demonstrate that the SAR-CoV-2 virus traveled widely throughout the body, including the brain, and persisted for approximately eight months. The findings were reported in the December 14 issue of Nature.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) analyzed materials collected during the autopsy conducted between April 2020 and March 2021. 11 of the patients took significant brain and other nervous system samples.
RNA and infectious viruses in several body systems.
Zero of the patients were immunized against COVID-19, and they all ultimately perished from the disease. SARS-CoV-2 was detected in the blood plasma of 38 patients, was not detected in the plasma of 3 patients, and was not available for three patients.
Males comprised 70% of the cases, while the median age was 62.5. A total of 27 patients (61.4%) had three or more co-morbidities. Symptom onset to death was a median of 18.5 days.
Read more: Public health officials warn of possible respiratory virus increases after the holidays.
As was predicted, SARS-CoV-2 largely infected and destroyed airway and lung tissue, as shown by the analysis. Researchers identified viral RNA from a patient’s blood 230 days after the onset of symptoms and discovered it in 84 other sites and bodily fluids.
It was shown that SARS-CoV-2 RNA and protein were present in the hypothalamus and cerebellum of one patient, as well as in the spinal cord and basal ganglia of two others. However, “despite high viral burden,” scientists detected little harm to brain tissue.
The brain, heart, lymph nodes, gastrointestinal tract, adrenal gland, and eye were just some of the non-respiratory tissues from which the researchers extracted SARS-CoV-2 that was able to replicate. They successfully removed the virus from 25% of the 55 samples they tested (40%).
For the first two weeks after the onset of symptoms, the authors showed that the virus was replicating in several non-respiratory sites.
They write, “Our focus on short postmortem intervals, a comprehensive standardized approach to tissue collection, dissecting the brain before fixation, preserving tissue in RNA later, and flash freezing of fresh tissue allowed us to detect and quantify SARS-CoV-2 RNA levels with high sensitivity by [polymerase chain reaction] and [in situ hybridization], as well as isolate virus in cell culture from multiple non-respiratory tissues, including the brain, which is notable diaspora hosts.”
Consequences for “long COVID.”
An NIH news release quotes senior research author Daniel Chertow, MD, MPH, saying, “the belief in the field was that SARS-CoV-2 was largely a respiratory virus.”
The discovery of widespread viral presence, shared with colleagues a year ago, has allowed researchers to investigate the link between widespread infection and “long COVID” (chronic, often severe, viral illness that lasts for weeks or months after the initial infection).
According to Stephen Hewitt, MD, Ph.D., who serves on a steering group for the RECOVER project, an autopsy work described in the Nature article will be expanded as part of the NIH-funded Paxlovid RECOVER trial, which is scheduled to begin in 2023. People who were vaccinated and then infected with variations of concern are part of the autopsies in the RECOVER trial, which is information that wasn’t available in yesterday’s report.
Hewitt hopes to investigate the link between long-term COVID and replication of the evidence on viral persistence. After only a year, we’ve already helped 85 people, and we’re actively trying to grow this program.