Tissue-specific Immunopathology in fatal Covid-19

ICECAP consortium

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

In life-threatening Covid-19, corticosteroids reduce mortality, suggesting that immune responses have a causal role in death. Whether this deleterious inflammation is primarily a direct reaction to the presence of SARS-CoV-2 or an independent immunopathologic process is unknown.

To determine SARS-CoV-2 organotropism and organ-specific inflammatory responses, and the relationships between viral presence, inflammation, and organ injury.

Tissue was acquired from eleven detailed post-mortem examinations. SARS-CoV-2 organotropism was mapped by multiplex PCR and sequencing, with cellular resolution achieved by in situ viral spike protein detection. Histological evidence of inflammation was quantified from 37 anatomical sites, and the pulmonary immune response characterized by multiplex immunofluorescence.

Measurements and Main Results:
Multiple aberrant immune responses in fatal Covid-19 were found, principally involving the lung and reticuloendothelial system, and these were not clearly topologically associated with the virus. Inflammation and organ dysfunction did not map to the tissue and cellular distribution of SARS-CoV-2 RNA and protein, both between and within tissues. An inflammatory arteritis was identified in the lung, which was further characterised as a monocyte/myeloid-rich vasculitis, and occurred along with an influx of macrophage/monocyte-lineage cells into the pulmonary parenchyma. In addition, stereotyped abnormal reticulo-endothelial responses, including excessive reactive plasmacytosis and iron-laden macrophages, were present and dissociated from viral presence in lymphoid tissues.

Tissue-specific immunopathology occurs in Covid-19, implicating a significant component of immune-mediated, virus-independent immunopathology as a primary mechanism in severe disease. Our data highlight novel immunopathological mechanisms, and validate ongoing and future efforts to therapeutically target aberrant macrophage and plasma cell responses as well as promoting pathogen tolerance in Covid-19.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)192-201
JournalAmerican Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine
Issue number2
Early online date20 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - 15 Jan 2021

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • COVID-19
  • autopsy
  • lung
  • inflammation
  • macrophages


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