Host-Microbe Multiomic Profiling Reveals Age-Dependent COVID-19 Immunopathology

medRxiv [Preprint]. 2024 Feb 13:2024.02.11.24301704. doi: 10.1101/2024.02.11.24301704.


Age is a major risk factor for severe coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19), yet the mechanisms responsible for this relationship have remained incompletely understood. To address this, we evaluated the impact of aging on host and viral dynamics in a prospective, multicenter cohort of 1,031 patients hospitalized for COVID-19, ranging from 18 to 96 years of age. We performed blood transcriptomics and nasal metatranscriptomics, and measured peripheral blood immune cell populations, inflammatory protein expression, anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies, and anti-interferon (IFN) autoantibodies. We found that older age correlated with an increased SARS-CoV-2 viral load at the time of admission, and with delayed viral clearance over 28 days. This contributed to an age-dependent increase in type I IFN gene expression in both the respiratory tract and blood. We also observed age-dependent transcriptional increases in peripheral blood IFN-γ, neutrophil degranulation, and Toll like receptor (TLR) signaling pathways, and decreases in T cell receptor (TCR) and B cell receptor signaling pathways. Over time, older adults exhibited a remarkably sustained induction of proinflammatory genes (e.g., CXCL6) and serum chemokines (e.g., CXCL9) compared to younger individuals, highlighting a striking age-dependent impairment in inflammation resolution. Augmented inflammatory signaling also involved the upper airway, where aging was associated with upregulation of TLR, IL17, type I IFN and IL1 pathways, and downregulation TCR and PD-1 signaling pathways. Metatranscriptomics revealed that the oldest adults exhibited disproportionate reactivation of herpes simplex virus and cytomegalovirus in the upper airway following hospitalization. Mass cytometry demonstrated that aging correlated with reduced naïve T and B cell populations, and increased monocytes and exhausted natural killer cells. Transcriptional and protein biomarkers of disease severity markedly differed with age, with the oldest adults exhibiting greater expression of TLR and inflammasome signaling genes, as well as proinflammatory proteins (e.g., IL6, CXCL8), in severe COVID-19 compared to mild/moderate disease. Anti-IFN autoantibody prevalence correlated with both age and disease severity. Taken together, this work profiles both host and microbe in the blood and airway to provide fresh insights into aging-related immune changes in a large cohort of vaccine-naïve COVID-19 patients. We observed age-dependent immune dysregulation at the transcriptional, protein and cellular levels, manifesting in an imbalance of inflammatory responses over the course of hospitalization, and suggesting potential new therapeutic targets.

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