While it is indeed true that the virus is highly infectious, scientifically unsubstantiated beliefs about the routes of transmission have only made it worse. As a result, doctors and healthcare workers have been harassed, sick people deserted at a time when they needed care, and even funerals of victims have been violently disrupted.
The last few weeks have not only seen a significant rise in the number of people in India infected by novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) but also fear and misconception about the ways the virus could spread.
The virus is like a pen drive. Within itself, a pen drive contains a memory storage chip, a USB controller, some more 'tiny nuts and bolts' and sometimes a mini LED light.
All this is encased within a metal or plastic case. It is a compact device and the only part that juts out of the case is the USB connector which can fit into the port of a desktop or laptop.
Functionally, the pen drive may contain huge data for storage, transport, copying and visualisation. But none of that can be done unless the USB connector docks onto the port of a computer.
It is only then that the pen drive 'comes to life' and the data inside can be viewed, edited and copied.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is very similar to the pen drive. They carry genetic material inside them which is the blueprint for making multiple copies of themselves.
However, copying this viral genome and making daughter viral particles is possible only when the spike protein (the equivalent of the USB connector) of the virus successfully binds to the ACE2 receptor protein (the equivalent of the USB port) of a host cell.
The virus hijacks the cell's internal systems and commands it to produce only biomolecules needed for making more viruses.
Finally, the infected cell bursts open and numerous viral particles are released, which, in turn, infect neighbouring cells or be carried out as part of droplets in human breath.
The organelles in a cell that are essential to produce multiple new viruses need energy, which is adenosine triphosphate (ATP) — the universal energy currency of cells. Virus production needs ATP, but once a person is dead, the cells stop making ATP.
The ATP production happens in mitochondria of the cell and cell needs oxygen to survive. Thus, ATP will be produced only when oxygen is available, which is not possible once a person is dead.
In the case of SARS-CoV-2, the primary route of transmission is through droplets expelled while talking, coughing or sneezing. Since dead bodies do not breathe, chances of droplet infection from the dead is non-existent.
However, a dead body often has fluids like saliva, phlegm, and blood oozing out and those could be a source of virus. This is the reason why there are clear national guidelines on how to handle dead bodies.