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Viral mapping in COVID-19 deceased in the Augsburg autopsy series of the first wave: A multiorgan and multimethodological approach

Background: COVID-19 is only partly understood, and the level of evidence available in terms of pathophysiology, epidemiology, therapy, and long-term outcome remains limited. During the early phase of the pandemic, it was necessary to effectively investigate all aspects of this new disease. Autopsy can be a valuable procedure to investigate the internal organs with special techniques to obtain information on the disease, especially the distribution and type of organ involvement. Methods: During the first wave of COVID-19 in Germany, autopsies of 19 deceased patients were performed. Besides gross examination, the organs were analyzed with standard histology and polymerase-chain-reaction for SARS-CoV-2. Polymerase chain reaction positive localizations were further analyzed with immunohistochemistry and RNA-in situ hybridization for SARS-CoV-2. Results: Eighteen of 19 patients were found to have died due to COVID-19. Clinically relevant histological changes were only observed in the lungs. Diffuse alveolar damage in considerably different degrees was noted in 18 cases. Other organs, including the central nervous system, did not show specific micromorphological alterations. In terms of SARS-CoV-2 detection, the focus remains on the upper airways and lungs. This is true for both the number of positive samples and the viral load. A highly significant inverse correlation between the stage of diffuse alveolar damage and viral load was found on a case and a sample basis. Mediastinal lymph nodes and fat were also affected by the virus at high frequencies. By contrast, other organs rarely exhibited a viral infection. Moderate to strong correlations between the methods for detecting SARS-CoV-2 were observed for the lungs and for other organs. Conclusions: The lung is the most affected organ in gross examination, histology and polymerase chain reaction. SARS-CoV-2 detection in other organs did not reveal relevant or specific histological changes. Moreover, we did not find CNS involvement.


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