Neutrophil extracellular traps in COVID-19

JCI Insight. 2020 Jun 4;5(11):e138999. doi: 10.1172/jci.insight.138999.


In severe cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), viral pneumonia progresses to respiratory failure. Neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs) are extracellular webs of chromatin, microbicidal proteins, and oxidant enzymes that are released by neutrophils to contain infections. However, when not properly regulated, NETs have the potential to propagate inflammation and microvascular thrombosis - including in the lungs of patients with acute respiratory distress syndrome. We now report that sera from patients with COVID-19 have elevated levels of cell-free DNA, myeloperoxidase-DNA (MPO-DNA), and citrullinated histone H3 (Cit-H3); the latter 2 are specific markers of NETs. Highlighting the potential clinical relevance of these findings, cell-free DNA strongly correlated with acute-phase reactants, including C-reactive protein, D-dimer, and lactate dehydrogenase, as well as absolute neutrophil count. MPO-DNA associated with both cell-free DNA and absolute neutrophil count, while Cit-H3 correlated with platelet levels. Importantly, both cell-free DNA and MPO-DNA were higher in hospitalized patients receiving mechanical ventilation as compared with hospitalized patients breathing room air. Finally, sera from individuals with COVID-19 triggered NET release from control neutrophils in vitro. Future studies should investigate the predictive power of circulating NETs in longitudinal cohorts and determine the extent to which NETs may be novel therapeutic targets in severe COVID-19.

Keywords: Infectious disease; Inflammation; Neutrophils.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • C-Reactive Protein / metabolism
  • COVID-19
  • Case-Control Studies
  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids / metabolism*
  • Citrullination
  • Coronavirus Infections / blood
  • Coronavirus Infections / metabolism*
  • Coronavirus Infections / therapy
  • Extracellular Traps / metabolism*
  • Female
  • Fibrin Fibrinogen Degradation Products / metabolism
  • Histones / metabolism*
  • Humans
  • In Vitro Techniques
  • L-Lactate Dehydrogenase / metabolism
  • Lymphocyte Count
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neutrophils / metabolism*
  • Pandemics
  • Peroxidase / metabolism*
  • Platelet Count
  • Pneumonia, Viral / blood
  • Pneumonia, Viral / metabolism*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / therapy
  • Respiration, Artificial
  • Severity of Illness Index


  • Cell-Free Nucleic Acids
  • Fibrin Fibrinogen Degradation Products
  • Histones
  • fibrin fragment D
  • C-Reactive Protein
  • L-Lactate Dehydrogenase
  • Peroxidase