EMBO Mol Med. 2021 May 7:e14045. doi: 10.15252/emmm.202114045. Online ahead of print.
The immune responses and mechanisms limiting symptom progression in asymptomatic cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection remain unclear. We comprehensively characterized transcriptomic profiles, cytokine responses, neutralization capacity of antibodies and cellular immune phenotypes of asymptomatic patients with acute SARS-CoV-2 infection to identify potential protective mechanisms. Compared to symptomatic patients, asymptomatic patients had higher counts of mature neutrophils and lower proportion of CD169+ expressing monocytes in the peripheral blood. Systemic levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines were also lower in asymptomatic patients, accompanied by milder pro-inflammatory gene signatures. Mechanistically, a more robust systemic Th2 cell signature with a higher level of virus-specific Th17 cells and a weaker yet sufficient neutralizing antibody profile against SARS-CoV-2 was observed in asymptomatic patients. In addition, asymptomatic COVID-19 patients had higher systemic levels of growth factors that are associated with cellular repair. Together, the data suggest that asymptomatic patients mount less pro-inflammatory and more protective immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 indicative of disease tolerance. Insights from this study highlight key immune pathways that could serve as therapeutic targets to prevent disease progression in COVID-19.