I see dead people with Ebola: Virus lives 7 days on corpses

When a person infected with Ebola dies, the virus can live on the body for up to 7 days… well, replace the word ‘person’ with the word ‘macaque.’ In a study published Thursday in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, researchers from the National Institutes of Health’s Rocky Mountain Laboratories in Montana studied the bodies of five euthanized, Ebola-infected monkeys. “Immediately after euthanasia, multiple samples were collected: oral, nasal, ocular, urogenital, rectal, skin, and blood (pooled in the body cavity) swab samples and tissue biopsy specimens: from the liver, spleen, lung, and muscle,” lead researcher Vincent Munster (no relation to Herman) wrote. “Carcasses were placed in vented plastic containers in an environmental chamber at 27 degrees C (80 degrees F) and 80 percent relative humidity throughout the study to mimic conditions in West Africa.”    

Munster’s team collected samples from several body surfaces and internal organs for a period 10 weeks at the end of which they found evidence of non-infectious genetic material known as RNA “in oral, nasal, and blood samples”. On the other hand, they also found that live Ebola virus remained in the surface tissue for up to 7 days and in the internal organs for up 3 days after the monkeys had gone to the big zoo in the sky. It’s a well-known fact that post-mortem transmission from people who have died of Ebola is not only possible, but it is one of the reasons that the current outbreak has been so devastating and enduring – with as many as 20% of new infections occurring during burials, according to WHO Ebola expert Dr. Pierre Formenty. “Family members exposed to Ebola patients during late stages of disease or who had contact with deceased patients have a high risk for infection,” the scientists said. Additionally, they determined that mouth swabs is a dependable and safer method than tissue biopsy for establishing if a person has died of Ebola, although they may not be as dependable as blood samples in people who may have been in the early Ebola stages but may have died from other causes.

However, so far no man of science has had the Herbert West-like determination to leave a human body unburied to test how long the virus survives after death. But the NIH researchers say that the conditions of people who have recently died of Ebola – and who have very high levels of the virus – are likely very similar to the macaques they study. As unfortunate as that comparison is, the truth is that primates like monkeys and apes are just as vulnerable to Ebola as humans are. In fact, animal to human transmission occurs as a result of handling and eating meat from monkeys and other animals, known as bushmeat. The virus is short-lived outside the body and is not airborne, but “viable virus can persist for at least seven days on surfaces of bodies, confirming that transmission from deceased persons is possible for an extended period after death. These data are also applicable for interpreting samples collected from remains of wildlife infected with Ebola virus, especially nonhuman primates, and to assess risks for handling these carcasses.”