A scientific journal has published a correction from two authors who had previously penned a short report suggesting that the coronavirus had spread from a corpse — a highly unusual measure only taken after a Thai journalist contacted BuzzFeed News about the accuracy of the journal’s report.
On April 12, the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine announced “the first report on COVID-19 infection and death among medical personnel in a Forensic Medicine unit,” which BuzzFeed News reported the next day. The authors of the report, Won Sriwijitalai of the RVT Medical Center in Bangkok and Viroj Wiwanitkit of Hainan Medical University in China, linked the death to “contact with biological samples and corpses.”
It was a groundbreaking statement from two scientists that captured the world’s attention, as experts scramble to understand how the coronavirus behaves and spreads among humans and animals.
But on Thursday, the journal published a correction from the authors. The original report was poorly written, the authors explained, and had resulted in “misinterpretation.”
“The authors regret that the article might not have good writing for clarification in the primary text and it might result in misinterpretation,” they wrote. “The authors did not mean to suggest that the victim had died, and that the authors do not know for sure and cannot scientifically confirm that the virus moved from the dead body.”
Asked about the correction, the journal’s editor, Tim Thompson, a professor of applied biological anthropology at Teesside University in the UK, said by email, “We have been chasing this down this past week. We’re hoping this will clear the situation up now.”
Elsevier, the publisher of the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine and one of the leading science journal publishers in the world, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The correction came after journalist Peerapon Anutarasoat of the Sure And Share Center in Bangkok raised questions to BuzzFeed News about the original report's accuracy and about its authors’ affiliations. BuzzFeed News contacted Elsevier as well as the journal’s editor on April 14 for comment on the questions raised by Anutarasoat.
In response, Thompson, the journal editor, wrote on April 15, "It's important to note that the letter doesn't say that the deceased caught COVID from a corpse, just that it's the first forensic practitioner to die."
In an email the next day, Sriwijitalai, the report’s coauthor, responded to a BuzzFeed News query to say a clarification was underway, and that the worker mentioned in the letter had not died, but had only been infected. The situation raised the “risk of death” among mortuary workers, he wrote.
The Thai health ministry and Thai embassy in Washington, DC, did not respond to requests for comment.
Scientists still know very little about whether the dead bodies of people infected with the coronavirus can be contagious. The CDC’s recommendations state, “People should consider not touching the body of someone who has died of COVID-19,” suggesting that those who handle dead bodies should wear personal protective equipment.
“This is really unusual, you don't publish a report that someone is dead and then say, no he isn't,” said Angelique Corthals, a professor of pathology at CUNY's John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “To be fair, this is a crisis and a lot of the review practices have become relaxed."
"The points about the importance of PPE in handling people who have died of coronavirus still stand, because we just don't have all the answers,” Corthals said.