Background & aims: Given that gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms are a prominent extrapulmonary manifestation of COVID-19, we investigated intestinal infection with SARS-CoV-2, its effect on pathogenesis, and clinical significance.
Methods: Human intestinal biopsy tissues were obtained from patients with COVID-19 (n = 19) and uninfected control individuals (n = 10) for microscopic examination, cytometry by time of flight analyses, and RNA sequencing. Additionally, disease severity and mortality were examined in patients with and without GI symptoms in 2 large, independent cohorts of hospitalized patients in the United States (N = 634) and Europe (N = 287) using multivariate logistic regressions.
Results: COVID-19 case patients and control individuals in the biopsy cohort were comparable for age, sex, rates of hospitalization, and relevant comorbid conditions. SARS-CoV-2 was detected in small intestinal epithelial cells by immunofluorescence staining or electron microscopy in 15 of 17 patients studied. High-dimensional analyses of GI tissues showed low levels of inflammation, including down-regulation of key inflammatory genes including IFNG, CXCL8, CXCL2, and IL1B and reduced frequencies of proinflammatory dendritic cells compared with control individuals. Consistent with these findings, we found a significant reduction in disease severity and mortality in patients presenting with GI symptoms that was independent of sex, age, and comorbid illnesses and despite similar nasopharyngeal SARS-CoV-2 viral loads. Furthermore, there was reduced levels of key inflammatory proteins in circulation in patients with GI symptoms.
Conclusions: These data highlight the absence of a proinflammatory response in the GI tract despite detection of SARS-CoV-2. In parallel, reduced mortality in patients with COVID-19 presenting with GI symptoms was observed. A potential role of the GI tract in attenuating SARS-CoV-2-associated inflammation needs to be further examined.
Keywords: COVID-19; GI infection; GI symptoms; SARS-CoV-2; host immune response; outcomes.
Copyright © 2021 AGA Institute. All rights reserved.