In-Depth: Study finds COVID infects entire body, not just lungs

Viral particles found in 79 of 85 areas tested
Posted at 5:58 AM, Jan 10, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-10 15:59:57-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - New research shows COVID-19 impacts nearly every part of the body, and doctors in San Diego say that shows treatment needs to do the same.

The study, which has not been peer-reviewed and was published as a pre-print, found "while that the highest burden of SARS-CoV-2 is in the airways and lung, the virus can disseminate early during infection and infect cells throughout the entire body."

More than 30 researchers and doctors from the National Institutes of Health, the University of Maryland, Baltimore and a handful of other clinics performed autopsies on 44 people, looking for viral particles of COVID-19 RNA in various organs, tissues, cells, and fluids.

They found it in 79 of the 85 areas tested, including the respiratory tissue (97.7%); cardiovascular tissue (79.5%); lymphoid tissue (63.6%); gastrointestinal tissue (72.7%); renal and endocrine tissue (63.6%); reproductive tissue (42.5%); muscle, skin, adipose, and peripheral nervous tissue (68.2%); ocular tissue and humors (57.9%); and brain tissue (90.9%).

"SARS-CoV2 is an RNA virus, and most RNA viruses cause a systemic infection," explains Dr. Davey Smith from UC San Diego. "People who are really sick with COVID-19 we find the virus in the blood. And as soon as you find it in the blood, you know that it's pretty much everywhere that the blood goes."

Dr. Smith says this study provides hard data for what many health professionals have known throughout the pandemic: COVID-19 is a systemic problem, not just a respiratory disease.

Because of that, treatment needs to focus on the entire body.

"For the most severe cases, we really need to look towards more systemic type treatments," he says. "(We need) infusions or pills or something that gets in our system and can get in all the different cells across our body. So that would be really important to make sure that we stop the virus wherever it's going."

The study also found viral particles present in the system as many as 230 days after initial infection. Dr. Smith says that falls in line with other RNA viruses like Ebola, where the immune system takes a long time to clear the body.

"So these RNA viruses are quite tricky and can evade the immune responses and hide out for a while," says Dr. Smith. "The researchers didn't really look for whether or not the virus was alive. They just noticed that there were pieces of it everywhere. And it just takes time for the immune system to clear out all the junk that can that comes with a massive infection like that."

Dr. Smith adds, this study does not draw any conclusions on why some people experience "long COVID," or symptoms that persist for months after the initial infection ends.

Research varies, but the CDC estimates around a third of all COVID-19 patients have some form of long COVID symptoms, which can range from fatigue and headaches to inflammation and brain fog.

"We don't know exactly if (long COVID) is because there's just lingering pieces of virus in the in the gut or the brain, or whether it's because there is inflammation that's caused by the virus from six months ago or a combination of those two things," Dr. Smith says.

In the meantime, Dr. Smith says the healthcare system is still "under siege" from COVID-19, especially with the emergence of the omicron variant. He urges everyone to get their vaccines and booster shots and do whatever they can to avoid infection.