Neutrophils are recognized as important circulating effector cells in the pathophysiology of severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). However, their role within the inflamed lungs is incompletely understood. Here, we collected bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL) fluids and parallel blood samples of critically ill COVID-19 patients requiring invasive mechanical ventilation and compared BAL fluid parameters with those of mechanically ventilated patients with influenza, as a non–COVID-19 viral pneumonia cohort. Compared with those of patients with influenza, BAL fluids of patients with COVID-19 contained increased numbers of hyperactivated degranulating neutrophils and elevated concentrations of the cytokines IL-1β, IL-1RA, IL-17A, TNF-α, and G-CSF; the chemokines CCL7, CXCL1, CXCL8, CXCL11, and CXCL12α; and the protease inhibitors elafin, secretory leukocyte protease inhibitor, and tissue inhibitor of metalloproteinases 1. In contrast, α-1 antitrypsin levels and net proteolytic activity were comparable in COVID-19 and influenza BAL fluids. During antibiotic treatment for bacterial coinfections, increased BAL fluid levels of several activating and chemotactic factors for monocytes, lymphocytes, and NK cells were detected in patients with COVID-19 whereas concentrations tended to decrease in patients with influenza, highlighting the persistent immunological response to coinfections in COVID-19. Finally, the high proteolytic activity in COVID-19 lungs suggests considering protease inhibitors as a treatment option.


Seppe Cambier, Mieke Metzemaekers, Ana Carolina de Carvalho, Amber Nooyens, Cato Jacobs, Lore Vanderbeke, Bert Malengier-Devlies, Mieke Gouwy, Elisabeth Heylen, Philippe Meersseman, Greet Hermans, Els Wauters, Alexander Wilmer, the CONTAGIOUS Consortium, Dominique Schols, Patrick Matthys, Ghislain Opdenakker, Rafael Elias Marques, Joost Wauters, Jennifer Vandooren, Paul Proost


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