Enteric involvement of severe acute respiratory syndrome-associated coronavirus infection

Gastroenterology. 2003 Oct;125(4):1011-7. doi: 10.1016/s0016-5085(03)01215-0.


Background and aims: Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a recently emerged infection from a novel coronavirus (CoV). Apart from fever and respiratory complications, gastrointestinal symptoms are frequently observed in patients with SARS but the significance remains undetermined. Herein, we describe the clinical, pathologic, and virologic features of the intestinal involvement of this new viral infection.

Methods: A retrospective analysis of the gastrointestinal symptoms and other clinical parameters of the first 138 patients with confirmed SARS admitted for a major outbreak in Hong Kong in March 2003 was performed. Intestinal specimens were obtained by colonoscopy or postmortem examination to detect the presence of coronavirus by electron microscopy, virus culture, and reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction.

Results: Among these 138 patients with SARS, 28 (20.3%) presented with watery diarrhea and up to 38.4% of patients had symptoms of diarrhea during the course of illness. Diarrhea was more frequently observed during the first week of illness. The mean number of days with diarrhea was 3.7 +/- 2.7, and most diarrhea was self-limiting. Intestinal biopsy specimens obtained by colonoscopy or autopsy showed minimal architectural disruption but the presence of active viral replication within both the small and large intestine. Coronavirus was also isolated by culture from these specimens, and SARS-CoV RNA can be detected in the stool of patients for more than 10 weeks after symptom onset.

Conclusions: Diarrhea is a common presenting symptom of SARS. The intestinal tropism of the SARS-CoV has major implications on clinical presentation and viral transmission.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Colonoscopy
  • Diarrhea / pathology
  • Diarrhea / virology*
  • Enteritis / pathology
  • Enteritis / virology*
  • Feces / virology
  • Female
  • Hong Kong
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • RNA, Viral / analysis
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome / complications*
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome / pathology
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus / genetics
  • Severe acute respiratory syndrome-related coronavirus / isolation & purification*


  • RNA, Viral