Natural Killer Cell Dysfunction and Its Role in COVID-19

Int J Mol Sci. 2020 Sep 1;21(17):6351. doi: 10.3390/ijms21176351.


When facing an acute viral infection, our immune systems need to function with finite precision to enable the elimination of the pathogen, whilst protecting our bodies from immune-related damage. In many instances however this "perfect balance" is not achieved, factors such as ageing, cancer, autoimmunity and cardiovascular disease all skew the immune response which is then further distorted by viral infection. In SARS-CoV-2, although the vast majority of COVID-19 cases are mild, as of 24 August 2020, over 800,000 people have died, many from the severe inflammatory cytokine release resulting in extreme clinical manifestations such as acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH). Severe complications are more common in elderly patients and patients with cardiovascular diseases. Natural killer (NK) cells play a critical role in modulating the immune response and in both of these patient groups, NK cell effector functions are blunted. Preliminary studies in COVID-19 patients with severe disease suggests a reduction in NK cell number and function, resulting in decreased clearance of infected and activated cells, and unchecked elevation of tissue-damaging inflammation markers. SARS-CoV-2 infection skews the immune response towards an overwhelmingly inflammatory phenotype. Restoration of NK cell effector functions has the potential to correct the delicate immune balance required to effectively overcome SARS-CoV-2 infection.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; cytokine storm; immune dysregulation; natural killer cells.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Autoimmunity
  • Betacoronavirus / immunology*
  • COVID-19
  • Coronavirus Infections / immunology*
  • Coronavirus Infections / metabolism
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology*
  • Disease Susceptibility / immunology*
  • Host-Pathogen Interactions / immunology*
  • Humans
  • Immunity, Innate*
  • Immunomodulation
  • Killer Cells, Natural / immunology*
  • Killer Cells, Natural / metabolism
  • Pandemics
  • Pneumonia, Viral / immunology*
  • Pneumonia, Viral / metabolism
  • Pneumonia, Viral / virology*
  • SARS-CoV-2