Cause of death based on systematic post-mortem studies in patients with positive SARS-CoV-2 tissue PCR during the COVID-19 pandemic

IMPORTANCE Assessment of the causative association between the COVID-19 and cause of death has been hampered by limited availability of systematically performed autopsies. We aimed to present autopsy-confirmed causes of death in patientswho died with COVID-19 and to assess the association between thrombosis and diffuse alveolar damage consistent with COVID-19 (DAD).

METHODS:

Consecutive forensic (n = 60) and clinical (n = 42) autopsies with positive post-mortem SARS-CoV-2PCR in lungs (age 73 ± 14 years, 50% men) were included. The cause of deathanalysis was based on a review of medical records and histological reports. Thrombotic phenomena in lungs were defined as pulmonary thromboembolism (PE), thrombosis in pulmonary artery branches or microangiopathy in capillary vessels.

RESULTS:

COVID-19 caused or contributed to death in 71% of clinical and 83% of forensic autopsies, in whom significant DAD was observed. Of the patients with COVID-19 as the primary cause of death, only 19% had no thrombotic phenomena in the lungs, as opposed to 38% amongst those with COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death and 54% amongst patients whose death was not related to COVID-19 (p = 0.002). PE was observed in 5 patients. Two patients fulfilled the criteria for lymphocytemyocarditis.

CONCLUSIONS:

Vast majority of all PCR-positive fatalities, including out-of-hospital deaths, during the SARS-CoV-2pandemic were related to DAD caused by COVID-19. Pulmonary arterythrombosis and microangiopathy in pulmonary tissue were common and associated with the presence of DAD, whilst venous PE was rarely observed. Histology-confirmed lymphocytemyocarditis was a rare finding.