While performing autopsies on patients who had had COVID-19, NIH researchers found evidence of lasting SARS-CoV-2 infection in almost every part of the human body.

While performing autopsies on patients who had had COVID-19, NIH researchers found evidence of lasting SARS-CoV-2 infection in almost every part of the human body.

What you need to know

Researchers at the NIH Clinical Center, the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) performed autopsies on the bodies of patients with COVID-19. The researchers found that even in patients who had mild or asymptomatic cases of COVID-19, evidence of SARS-CoV-2 infection was present throughout the entire body and stayed there until the patients’ deaths, which in some cases occurred more than seven months after the start of symptoms.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers examined tissue from many different sites in the body from 44 patients who had died of COVID-19 or who had tested positive for the disease before they died. The autopsies were performed at the NIH Clinical Center between April 2020 and March 2021.

There was a lot of variation in the patients’ cases. Some of these patients had asymptomatic or mild COVID-19 and died of other causes, while others had severe COVID-19 and died because of it. Some of the patients had been diagnosed with COVID-19 just days before they died; others had developed their first symptoms many months before. The patients ranged in age from 6 to 91 years old. Most of the patients died in 2020, before vaccines were available.

What did they learn?

Analysis of the patients’ samples revealed SARS-CoV-2 in almost every organ and organ system of their bodies, including their skin, eyes, stomachs, muscle, fat, glands, and six different parts of their brains. SARS-CoV-2 was present even in asymptomatic patients, patients who had had mild cases of COVID-19, and patients who had first been diagnosed with the disease months before their death. This suggests that even mild cases of COVID-19 spread quickly and the virus can remain in our tissue for a long time.

Why is this research important?

COVID-19 is often thought of as a respiratory disease that we either recover or die from, but researchers continue to learn that the disease is more complicated. COVID-19 affects many different parts of the body, from our stomachs to our hearts to our brains. While none of the patients in this study had been diagnosed with Long COVID, these findings could help explain why COVID-19 makes some people sick for a long time. The more we understand about how this virus affects our bodies, the better we can treat it.

Where can I go to learn more?

Study Looks for Long COVID Risk Factors

  • A study supported by NIAID found a number of risk factors that were associated with having COVID-19 symptoms 2 to 3 months after diagnosis.

Studying Long COVID Might Help Others With Post-Viral Fatigue Ailments

  • For people with myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), research into Long COVID may help shed light on their own struggles.


Stein, S. R., Ramelli, S. C., Grazioli, A., Chung, J.-Y., Singh, M., Yinda, C. K., Winkler, C. W., Dickey, J. M., Ylaya, K., Ko, S. H., Platt, A., Burbelo, P. D., Quezado, M., Pittaluga, S., Purcell, M., Munster, V. J., Belinky, F., Ramos-Benitez, M. J., Boritz, E. A., ... Chertow, D. S. (2022). SARS-CoV-2 infection and persistence throughout the human body and brain. Preprint. https://doi.org/10.21203/rs.3.rs-1139035/v1


News and Stories

Read stories about the efforts underway to prevent, detect, and treat COVID-19 and its effects on our health.

NIH COVID-19 Resources by Topic

COVID-19 research information and resources by topic from NIH institutes and centers

Page last updated: October 28, 2022