The World Health Organization has defined long COVID-19 (LC) as a condition where patients exhibit persistent symptoms over time after its acute phase, which cannot be explained by alternative diagnosis. Since we have previously reported residual viral antigens in tissues of convalescent patients, we now aim to assess the presence of such antigens in post-convalescent tissues. Here, we established the presence of residual virus within the appendix and breast tissue of 2 patients who exhibited LC symptoms, 163 to 462 days upon positive diagnosis, using immunohistological techniques. We observed positive staining for viral nucleocapsid protein (NP) in the appendix, and tumour-adjacent region of the breast, but not within the tumour. Multiplex immunohistochemistry further detected colocalization of viral NP with macrophage marker CD68, in support of immune cells being direct targets. Notably, with RNA scope, both positive-sense and negative-sense (replicative intermediate) viral RNA were detected. As a single-stranded virus, SARS-CoV-2, have to produce a replicative intermediate as a template to synthesize new genomic RNAs. Thus, the detection of negative-sense viral RNA suggests ongoing viral replication. While viral RNA and antigen from gastrointestinal and stool samples of convalescent patients has been extensively reported, we believe this is the first study to detect viable virus. Furthermore, our positive finding in the breast tissue also corroborated with recent reports that immunocompromised patients had also experienced LC symptoms and persistent viral replication. Overall, our findings, along with emerging LC studies, question the possibility of the gastrointestinal tract functioning as a reservoir.

Supported by A*STAR Career Development Award (C21112056)