Expansion of Cytotoxic CD4+ T cells in the lungs in severe COVID-19

medRxiv. 2021 Mar 26;2021.03.23.21253885. doi: 10.1101/2021.03.23.21253885. Preprint

Abstract

The contributions of T cells infiltrating the lungs to SARS-CoV-2 clearance and disease progression are poorly understood. Although studies of CD8+ T cells in bronchoalveolar lavage and blood have suggested that these cells are exhausted in severe COVID-19, CD4+ T cells have not been systematically interrogated within the lung parenchyma. We establish here that cytotoxic CD4+ T cells (CD4+CTLs) are prominently expanded in the COVID-19 lung infiltrate. CD4+CTL numbers in the lung increase with disease severity and progression is accompanied by widespread HLA-DR expression on lung epithelial and endothelial cells, increased apoptosis of epithelial cells and tissue remodeling. Based on quantitative evidence for re-activation in the lung milieu, CD4+ CTLs are as likely to drive viral clearance as CD8+ T cells and may also be contributors to lung inflammation and eventually to fibrosis in severe COVID-19.

In brief: In severe COVID-19 cytotoxic CD4+ T cells accumulate in draining lymph nodes and in the lungs during the resolving phase of the disease. Re-activated cytotoxic CD4+ T cells and cytotoxic CD8+ T cells are present in roughly equivalent numbers in the lungs at this stage and these cells likely collaborate to eliminate virally infected cells and potentially induce fibrosis. A large fraction of epithelial and endothelial cells in the lung express HLA class II in COVID-19 and there is temporal convergence between CD4+CTL accumulation and apoptosis in the lung.

Highlights: In severe COVID-19, activated CD4+ CTLs accumulate in the lungs late in diseaseThese cells likely participate in SARS-CoV-2 clearance, collaborating with CD8+ T cells many of which exhibit an exhausted phenotypeT cells likely contribute to the late exacerbation of inflammationCD4+CTLs have been linked to fibrosis in many disorders and could also be responsible for the eventual induction of fibrosis in a subset of COVID-19 patients.

Summary: The contributions of T cells infiltrating the lungs to SARS-CoV-2 clearance and disease progression are poorly understood. Although studies of CD8+ T cells in bronchoalveolar lavage and blood have suggested that these cells are exhausted in severe COVID-19, CD4+ T cells have not been systematically interrogated within the lung parenchyma. We establish here that cytotoxic CD4+ T cells (CD4+CTLs) are prominently expanded in the COVID-19 lung infiltrate. CD4+CTL numbers in the lung increase with disease severity and progression is accompanied by widespread HLA-DR expression on lung epithelial and endothelial cells, increased apoptosis of epithelial cells and tissue remodeling. Based on quantitative evidence for re-activation in the lung milieu, CD4+ CTLs are as likely to drive viral clearance as CD8+ T cells and may also be contributors to lung inflammation and eventually to fibrosis in severe COVID-19.

Publication types

  • Preprint