Severe COVID-19 associated pneumonia patients may exhibit features of systemic hyper-inflammation designated under the umbrella term of macrophage activation syndrome (MAS) or cytokine storm, also known as secondary haemophagocytic lymphohistocytosis (sHLH). This is distinct from HLH associated with immunodeficiency states termed primary HLH -with radically different therapy strategies in both situations. COVID-19 infection with MAS typically occurs in subjects with adult respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and historically, non-survival in ARDS was linked to sustained IL-6 and IL-1 elevation. We provide a model for the classification of MAS to stratify the MAS-like presentation in COVID-19 pneumonia and explore the complexities of discerning ARDS from MAS. We discuss the potential impact of timing of anti-cytokine therapy on viral clearance and the impact of such therapy on intra-pulmonary macrophage activation and emergent pulmonary vascular disease.
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