A case-control autopsy series of liver pathology associated with novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19)

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Annals of Diagnostic Pathology


Background; Although severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) responsible for coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is most well-known for causing pulmonary injury, a significant proportion of patients experience hepatic dysfunction. The mechanism by which SARS-CoV2 causes liver injury is not fully understood. The goal of this study was to describe the hepatic pathology in a large cohort of deceased patients with COVID-19 as compared to a control group of deceased patients without COVID-19. Methods; Consented autopsy cases at two institutions were searched for documentation of COVID-19 as a contributing cause of death. A group of consecutive consented autopsy cases during the same period, negative for SARS-CoV-2 infection, was used as a control group. The autopsy report and electronic medical records were reviewed for relevant clinicopathologic information. H&E-stained liver sections from both groups were examined for pertinent histologic features. Select cases underwent immunohistochemical staining for CD 68 and ACE2 and droplet digital polymerase chain reaction (ddPCR) assay for evaluation of SARS-CoV2 RNA. Results; 48 COVID-19 positive patients (median age 73, M;F 3;1) and 40 COVID-19 negative control patients (median age 67.5, M;F 1.4;1) were included in the study. The COVID-19 positive group was significantly older and had a lower rate of alcoholism and malignancy, but there was no difference in other comorbidities. The COVID-19 positive group was more likely to have received steroids (75.6 % vs. 36.1 %, p < 0.001). Hepatic vascular changes were seen in a minority (10.6 %) of COVID-19 positive cases. When all patients were included, there were no significant histopathologic differences between groups, but when patients with chronic alcoholism were excluded, the COVID-19 positive group was significantly more likely to have steatosis (80.9 % vs. 50.0 %, p = 0.004) and lobular inflammation (45.7 % vs. 20.7 %, p = 0.03). Testing for viral RNA by ddPCR identified 2 of the 18 (11.1 %) COVID-19 positive cases to have SARS-CoV-2 RNA detected within the liver FFPE tissue. Conclusions; The most significant findings in the liver of COVID-19 positive patients were mild lobular inflammation and steatosis. The high rate of steroid therapy in this population may be a possible source of steatosis. Hepatic vascular alterations were only identified in a minority of patients and did not appear to play a predominant role in COVID-19 mediated hepatic injury. Low incidence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA positivity in liver tissue in our cohort suggests hepatic injury in the setting of COVID-19 may be secondary in nature.

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