The Pathology of Severe COVID-19-Related Lung Damage

Felix K F Kommoss, Constantin Schwab, Luca Tavernar, Johannes Schreck, Willi L Wagner, Uta Merle, Danny Jonigk, Peter Schirmacher, Thomas Longerich
Deutsches Ärzteblatt International 2020 July 20, 117 (29-30): 500-506

BACKGROUND: The histomorphological changes of lung damage in severe coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) have not yet been adequately characterized. In this article, we describe the sequence of pathological changes in COVID-19 and discuss the implications for approaches to treatment.

METHODS: Standardized autopsies were performed on thirteen patients who had died of COVID-19. The findings were analyzed together with clinical data from the patients' medical records.

RESULTS: Most (77%) of the deceased patients were men. Their median age at death was 78 years (range, 41-90). Most of them had major pre-existing chronic diseases, most commonly arterial hypertension. The autopsies revealed characteristic COVID-19-induced pathological changes in the lungs, which were regarded as the cause of death in most patients. The main histological finding was sequential alveolar damage, apparently due in large measure to focal capillary microthrombus formation. Alveolar damage leads to the death of the patient either directly or by the induction of pulmonary parenchymal fibrosis. Diffuse lung damage was seen exclusively in invasively ventilated patients.

CONCLUSION: Autopsies are crucial for the systematic assessment of new diseases such as COVID-19: they provide a basis for further investigations of disease mechanisms and for the devising of potentially effective modes of treatment. The autopsy findings suggest that focal damage of the microvascular pulmonary circulation is a main mechanism of lethal lung disease due to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. It may also be a cause of persistent lung damage in patients who recover from severe COVID-19.

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