Heightened Innate Immune Responses in the Respiratory Tract of COVID-19 Patients

Cell Host Microbe. 2020 Jun 10;27(6):883-890.e2. doi: 10.1016/j.chom.2020.04.017. Epub 2020 May 4.


The outbreaks of 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection have posed a severe threat to global public health. It is unclear how the human immune system responds to this infection. Here, we used metatranscriptomic sequencing to profile immune signatures in the bronchoalveolar lavage fluid of eight COVID-19 cases. The expression of proinflammatory genes, especially chemokines, was markedly elevated in COVID-19 cases compared to community-acquired pneumonia patients and healthy controls, suggesting that SARS-CoV-2 infection causes hypercytokinemia. Compared to SARS-CoV, which is thought to induce inadequate interferon (IFN) responses, SARS-CoV-2 robustly triggered expression of numerous IFN-stimulated genes (ISGs). These ISGs exhibit immunopathogenic potential, with overrepresentation of genes involved in inflammation. The transcriptome data was also used to estimate immune cell populations, revealing increases in activated dendritic cells and neutrophils. Collectively, these host responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection could further our understanding of disease pathogenesis and point toward antiviral strategies.

Keywords: Bronchoalveolar lavage fluid; COVID-19; Chemokines; Coronavirus; Hypercytokinemia; Innate immune response; Interferon response; Interferon-stimulated genes; Metatranscriptomic sequencing; SARS-CoV-2.

MeSH terms

  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage Fluid / cytology
  • Bronchoalveolar Lavage Fluid / immunology*
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / immunology*
  • Coronavirus Infections / pathology
  • Cytokine Release Syndrome
  • Cytokines / analysis
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Interferons / metabolism
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / immunology*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / pathology
  • Respiratory System / immunology*
  • Respiratory System / pathology


  • Cytokines
  • Interferons