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Researchers just learned something new and disturbing about the coronavirus

Published Sep 8th, 2020 11:06AM EDT
Coronavirus Asymptomatic Spread
Image: JHDT Productions/Adobe

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  • A new study details another asymptomatic manifestation of the coronavirus infection that may outlast COVID-19.
  • The virus continues to replicate in the gut even after it is cleared from a patient’s lungs.
  • The coronavirus might not cause additional symptoms, but researchers think the finding could help with future screening and treatment protocols.

We’ve been living with the novel coronavirus for almost nine months now, yet we still haven’t learned all of its secrets. But researchers continue to uncover new details about the pathogen’s effects on the human body, which can be used to come up with new policies that can help contain the spread of the illness. These revelations can of course also lead to treatments that speed up recovery time. The newest COVID-19 secret comes from Hong Kong, where scientists have discovered a coronavirus side effect you might not even be aware of, regardless of whether you get a symptomatic or asymptomatic case of COVID-19.

The scientists looked at stool samples from COVID-19 patients and discovered the virus was still present in the gut without causing gastrointestinal symptoms. The virus can survive even longer in the gut than in the lungs, and it might continue to spread even after the airways are cleared of the virus.

COVID-19 is seen as a respiratory disease that primarily affects the lungs, although the virus has a direct impact on other organs like the rich system of blood vessels in the human body, the heart, and the brain. Researchers from the Chinese University of Hong Kong published their findings in the medical journal Gut, via Bloomberg, concluding that the results are troubling but they could also help doctors find new ways to diagnose COVID-19 more quickly.

The researchers looked at stool samples from 15 patients and found that seven of them had an infection present. However, the patients did not exhibit any symptoms consistent with a pathogen infecting the gut; there was no nausea, diarrhea, or other digestive symptoms. Three patients continued to exhibit an active infection in the gut six days after PCR tests began coming back negative for COVID-19.

The finding “highlights the importance of long-term coronavirus and health surveillance and the threat of potential fecal-oral viral transmissions,” Siew Chien Ng said in a statement.

Patients who are declared cured after negative nasal swab tests could still theoretically infect other people via fecal-oral contact if the virus continues to multiply inside the gut. Previous research has shown that aerosols in bathrooms might spread the infection to other people sharing the same restroom with an infected person.

The university has offered free screening stool tests to travelers arriving at the airport since March, and the program seems to work. They detected six infected children with the help of these tests, out of more than 2,000 samples.

This study could also guide physicians treating the illness and help them develop new therapies that include modulating the composition and functionality of the gut microbiome, Ng explained. Gut bacteria from patients who were still infectious showed a loss of protective microbes and a proliferation of microbes that would be harmful to the host. Ensuring that the virus isn’t present in the gut can also help prevent the potential spread via the same fecal-oral transmission mechanism.

As always with COVID-19 studies, more research is required to verify these findings. But the study further indicates that the virus might not vanish from the body once the respiratory infection is no longer detectable via PCR testing. Some COVID-19 survivors continue to experience symptoms for weeks to months after the initial infection, even after they test negative for the virus for the first time. It’s unclear whether this type of condition, which some call Long COVID, has anything to do with the continued presence of the virus inside the gut.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.