A neutrophil activation signature predicts critical illness and mortality in COVID-19

Blood Adv. 2021 Mar 9;5(5):1164-1177. doi: 10.1182/bloodadvances.2020003568.


Pathologic immune hyperactivation is emerging as a key feature of critical illness in COVID-19, but the mechanisms involved remain poorly understood. We carried out proteomic profiling of plasma from cross-sectional and longitudinal cohorts of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 and analyzed clinical data from our health system database of more than 3300 patients. Using a machine learning algorithm, we identified a prominent signature of neutrophil activation, including resistin, lipocalin-2, hepatocyte growth factor, interleukin-8, and granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, which were the strongest predictors of critical illness. Evidence of neutrophil activation was present on the first day of hospitalization in patients who would only later require transfer to the intensive care unit, thus preceding the onset of critical illness and predicting increased mortality. In the health system database, early elevations in developing and mature neutrophil counts also predicted higher mortality rates. Altogether, these data suggest a central role for neutrophil activation in the pathogenesis of severe COVID-19 and identify molecular markers that distinguish patients at risk of future clinical decompensation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Biomarkers / blood
  • COVID-19 / blood
  • COVID-19 / immunology*
  • COVID-19 / mortality
  • Critical Illness / epidemiology
  • Critical Illness / mortality
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Female
  • Hospitalization
  • Humans
  • Machine Learning
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Neutrophil Activation*
  • Prognosis
  • SARS-CoV-2 / immunology
  • Severity of Illness Index


  • Biomarkers