Characterizing Viral Infection by Electron Microscopy: Lessons from the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Pandemic

Am J Pathol. 2021 Feb;191(2):222-227. doi: 10.1016/j.ajpath.2020.11.003. Epub 2020 Nov 20.


The severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 pandemic has infected millions of individuals in the United States and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Direct infection of extrapulmonary tissues has been postulated, and using sensitive techniques, viral RNA has been detected in multiple organs in the body, including the kidney. However, direct infection of tissues outside of the lung has been more challenging to demonstrate. This has been in part due to misinterpretation of electron microscopy studies. In this perspective, we will discuss what is known about coronavirus infection, some of the basic ultrastructural cell biology that has been confused for coronavirus infection of cells, and rigorous criteria that should be used when identifying pathogens by electron microscopy.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • COVID-19* / virology
  • Coronavirus Infections / virology*
  • Humans
  • Lung / ultrastructure
  • Lung / virology
  • Microscopy, Electron* / methods
  • SARS-CoV-2 / pathogenicity*
  • United States
  • Virus Diseases