medRxiv. 2020 Sep 5:2020.09.03.20183947. doi: 10.1101/2020.09.03.20183947. Preprint.
BACKGROUND AND AIMS: Immune dysregulation caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection is thought to play a pathogenic role in COVID-19. SARS-CoV-2 can infect a variety of host cells, including intestinal epithelial cells. We sought to characterize the role of the gastrointestinal immune system in the pathogenesis of the inflammatory response associated with COVID-19.
METHODS: We measured cytokines, inflammatory markers, viral RNA, microbiome composition and antibody responses in stool and serum samples from a prospectively enrolled cohort of 44 hospitalized COVID-19 patients.
RESULTS: SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detected in stool of 41% of patients and was found more frequently in patients with diarrhea than those without (16[44%] vs 5[19%], p=0.06). Patients who survived had lower median viral genome copies than those who did not (p=0.021). Compared to uninfected controls, COVID-19 patients had higher median fecal levels of IL-8 (166.5 vs 286.5 pg/mg; p=0.05) and lower levels of fecal IL-10 (678 vs 194 pg/mg; p<0.001) compared to uninfected controls. Stool IL-23 was higher in patients with more severe COVID-19 disease (223.8 vs 86.6 pg/mg; p=0.03) and we find evidence of intestinal virus-specific IgA responses, which was associated with more severe disease. Fecal cytokines and calprotectin levels were not correlated with gastrointestinal symptoms or with the level of virus detected.
CONCLUSIONS: Although SARS-CoV-2 RNA was detectable in the stools of COVID-19 patients and select individuals had evidence for a specific mucosal IgA response, intestinal inflammation was limited, even in patients presenting with gastrointestinal symptoms.