Endothelial Cell Infection and Dysfunction, Immune Activation in Severe COVID-19

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Rationale: Pulmonary vascular endotheliitis, perivascular inflammation, and immune activation are observed in COVID-19 patients. While the initial SARS-CoV-2 infection mainly infects lung epithelial cells, whether it also infects endothelial cells (ECs) and to what extent SARS-CoV-2-mediated pulmonary vascular endotheliitis is associated with immune activation remain to be determined. Methods: To address these questions, we studied SARS-CoV-2-infected K18-hACE2 (K18) mice, a severe COVID-19 mouse model, as well as lung samples from SARS-CoV-2-infected nonhuman primates (NHP) and patient deceased from COVID-19. We used immunostaining, RNAscope, and electron microscopy to analyze the organs collected from animals and patient. We conducted bulk and single cell (sc) RNA-seq analyses, and cytokine profiling of lungs or serum of the severe COVID-19 mice. Results: We show that SARS-CoV-2-infected K18 mice develop severe COVID-19, including progressive body weight loss and fatality at 7 days, severe lung interstitial inflammation, edema, hemorrhage, perivascular inflammation, systemic lymphocytopenia, and eosinopenia. Body weight loss in K18 mice correlated with the severity of pneumonia, but not with brain infection. We also observed endothelial activation and dysfunction in pulmonary vessels evidenced by the up-regulation of VCAM1 and ICAM1 and the downregulation of VE-cadherin. We detected SARS-CoV-2 in capillary ECs, activation and adhesion of platelets and immune cells to the vascular wall of the alveolar septa, and increased complement deposition in the lungs, in both COVID-19-murine and NHP models. We also revealed that pathways of coagulation, complement, K-ras signaling, and genes of ICAM1 and VCAM1 related to EC dysfunction and injury were upregulated, and were associated with massive immune activation in the lung and circulation. Conclusion: Together, our results indicate that SARS-CoV-2 causes endotheliitis via both infection and infection-mediated immune activation, which may contribute to the pathogenesis of severe COVID-19 disease.

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Ivyspring International Publisher [Commercial Publisher]