Tissue-Specific Immunopathology in Fatal COVID-19

Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2021 Jan 15;203(2):192-201. doi: 10.1164/rccm.202008-3265OC.


Rationale: In life-threatening coronavirus disease (COVID-19), corticosteroids reduce mortality, suggesting that immune responses have a causal role in death. Whether this deleterious inflammation is primarily a direct reaction to the presence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) or an independent immunopathologic process is unknown.Objectives: To determine SARS-CoV-2 organotropism and organ-specific inflammatory responses and the relationships among viral presence, inflammation, and organ injury.Methods: Tissue was acquired from 11 detailed postmortem examinations. SARS-CoV-2 organotropism was mapped by using multiplex PCR and sequencing, with cellular resolution achieved by in situ viral S (spike) protein detection. Histologic evidence of inflammation was quantified from 37 anatomic sites, and the pulmonary immune response was characterized by using multiplex immunofluorescence.Measurements and Main Results: Multiple aberrant immune responses in fatal COVID-19 were found, principally involving the lung and reticuloendothelial system, and these were not clearly topologically associated with the virus. Inflammation and organ dysfunction did not map to the tissue and cellular distribution of SARS-CoV-2 RNA and protein between or within tissues. An arteritis was identified in the lung, which was further characterized as a monocyte/myeloid-rich vasculitis, and occurred together with an influx of macrophage/monocyte-lineage cells into the pulmonary parenchyma. In addition, stereotyped abnormal reticuloendothelial responses, including excessive reactive plasmacytosis and iron-laden macrophages, were present and dissociated from viral presence in lymphoid tissues.Conclusions: Tissue-specific immunopathology occurs in COVID-19, implicating a significant component of the immune-mediated, virus-independent immunopathologic process as a primary mechanism in severe disease. Our data highlight novel immunopathologic mechanisms and validate ongoing and future efforts to therapeutically target aberrant macrophage and plasma-cell responses as well as promote pathogen tolerance in COVID-19.

Keywords: COVID-19; autopsy; inflammation; lung; macrophages.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Autopsy
  • Biopsy
  • COVID-19 / immunology*
  • COVID-19 / pathology
  • COVID-19 / virology
  • COVID-19 Nucleic Acid Testing
  • Female
  • Fluorescent Antibody Technique
  • Humans
  • Inflammation / immunology
  • Inflammation / pathology
  • Inflammation / virology*
  • Lung / immunology*
  • Lung / pathology
  • Lung / virology
  • Male
  • Multiple Organ Failure / immunology
  • Multiple Organ Failure / pathology
  • Multiple Organ Failure / virology*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / immunology*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / pathogenicity
  • Severity of Illness Index