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Legal medicine departments at many universities across Japan are reporting that requests to test corpses for the novel coronavirus are being rejected by the nation’s public health centers.

“Whether there is an infection is an important piece of information even from a corpse, so the country should set up a regime for rigorous testing,” one forensic medicine expert said.

A survey of doctors by the Japanese Society for Forensic Pathology found that there were 12 cases since late January in which requests to public health centers to conduct polymerase chain reaction tests on corpses were denied. PCR tests are being widely used to detect the novel coronavirus.

The survey covered around 80 member universities and medical institutions and drew responses from 26.

One institution that dissected the corpse of a man in his 70s in early April consulted a public health center about the possibility the deceased might have had COVID-19. The man, who lived alone, died in his house, and acquaintances told the institution he had been dealing with a slight fever for several days before his death.

However, the health center rejected the request to test his body for the coronavirus, saying the corpse is not subject to testing as it is not clear whether the man had close contact with infected people.

Another medical institution asked a health center to test a dead man in his 30s for the virus but was also rejected. The chance that COVID-19 was the cause of death was low, but his death followed a stay at a hospital where the contagion had infected multiple people. The institution requested the test due to concerns that those who had close contact with the body during its dissection might be infected.

On the other hand, public health centers did test 11 corpses as requested, including one of a man who was suspected to have died of pneumonia based on computerized tomography scans taken after death. All of the cases turned out negative for the virus.

In light of the health centers’ frequent rejections, legal medicine departments at several schools have begun conducting posthumous PCR tests on their own, including Chiba University, Wakayama Medical University and Nagasaki University.

“If the deceased test positive, information of such people before their deaths can be utilized to prevent the spread of the virus, while negative results can still give reassurance to those who had contact with the patients,” said Wakayama Medical University professor Toshikazu Kondo, who heads the Japanese Society for Forensic Pathology. “There should be a testing regime for corpses.”

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