SARS-CoV-2 infection causes severe pneumonia (COVID-19), but the mechanisms of subsequent respiratory failure and complicating renal and myocardial involvement are poorly understood. In addition, a systemic prothrombotic phenotype has been reported in COVID-19 patients.
A total of 62 subjects were included in our study (n=38 patients with RT-PCR confirmed COVID-19 and n=24 non-COVID-19 controls). We performed histopathological assessment of autopsy cases, surface-marker based phenotyping of neutrophils and platelets, and functional assays for platelet, neutrophil functions as well as coagulation tests.
We provide evidence that organ involvement and prothrombotic features in COVID-19 are linked by immunothrombosis. We show that in COVID-19 inflammatory microvascular thrombi are present in the lung, kidney, and heart, containing neutrophil extracellular traps associated with platelets and fibrin. COVID-19 patients also present with neutrophil-platelet aggregates and a distinct neutrophil and platelet activation pattern in blood, which changes with disease severity. Whereas cases of intermediate severity show an exhausted platelet and hyporeactive neutrophil phenotype, severely affected COVID-19 patients are characterized by excessive platelet and neutrophil activation compared to healthy controls and non-COVID-19 pneumonia. Dysregulated immunothrombosis in SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia is linked to both ARDS and systemic hypercoagulability.
Taken together, our data point to immunothrombotic dysregulation as a key marker of disease severity in COVID-19. Further work is necessary to determine the role of immunothrombosis in COVID-19.