Thick, viscous respiratory secretions are a major pathogenic feature of COVID-19, but the composition and physical properties of these secretions are poorly understood. We characterized the composition and rheological properties (i.e., resistance to flow) of respiratory secretions collected from intubated COVID-19 patients. We found the percentages of solids and protein content were greatly elevated in COVID-19 compared with heathy control samples and closely resembled levels seen in cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease known for thick, tenacious respiratory secretions. DNA and hyaluronan (HA) were major components of respiratory secretions in COVID-19 and were likewise abundant in cadaveric lung tissues from these patients. COVID-19 secretions exhibited heterogeneous rheological behaviors, with thicker samples showing increased sensitivity to DNase and hyaluronidase treatment. In histologic sections from these same patients, we observed increased accumulation of HA and the hyaladherin versican but reduced tumor necrosis factor–stimulated gene-6 staining, consistent with the inflammatory nature of these secretions. Finally, we observed diminished type I interferon and enhanced inflammatory cytokines in these secretions. Overall, our studies indicated that increases in HA and DNA in COVID-19 respiratory secretion samples correlated with enhanced inflammatory burden and suggested that DNA and HA may be viable therapeutic targets in COVID-19 infection.


Michael J. Kratochvil, Gernot Kaber, Sally Demirdjian, Pamela C. Cai, Elizabeth B. Burgener, Nadine Nagy, Graham L. Barlow, Medeea Popescu, Mark R. Nicolls, Michael G. Ozawa, Donald P. Regula, Ana E. Pacheco-Navarro, Samuel Yang, Vinicio A. de Jesus Perez, Harry Karmouty-Quintana, Andrew M. Peters, Bihong Zhao, Maximilian L. Buja, Pamela Y. Johnson, Robert B. Vernon, Thomas N. Wight, Stanford COVID-19 Biobank Study Group, Carlos E. Milla, Angela J. Rogers, Andrew J. Spakowitz, Sarah C. Heilshorn, Paul L. Bollyky


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