Signatures of COVID-19 severity and immune response in the respiratory tract microbiome

Carter Merenstein, Guanxiang Liang, Samantha A Whiteside, Ana G Cobián-Güemes, Madeline S Merlino, Louis J Taylor, Abigail Glascock, Kyle Bittinger, Ceylan Tanes, Jevon Graham-Wooten, Layla A Khatib, Ayannah S Fitzgerald, Shantan Reddy, Amy E Baxter, Josephine R Giles, Derek A Oldridge, Nuala J Meyer, E John Wherry, John E McGinniss, Frederic D Bushman, Ronald G Collman
medRxiv: the preprint server for health sciences 2021 April 5

Rationale: Viral infection of the respiratory tract can be associated with propagating effects on the airway microbiome, and microbiome dysbiosis may influence viral disease.

Objective: To define the respiratory tract microbiome in COVID-19 and relationship disease severity, systemic immunologic features, and outcomes.

Methods and Measurements: We examined 507 oropharyngeal, nasopharyngeal and endotracheal samples from 83 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, along with non-COVID patients and healthy controls. Bacterial communities were interrogated using 16S rRNA gene sequencing, commensal DNA viruses Anelloviridae and Redondoviridae were quantified by qPCR, and immune features were characterized by lymphocyte/neutrophil (L/N) ratios and deep immune profiling of peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PBMC).

Main Results: COVID-19 patients had upper respiratory microbiome dysbiosis, and greater change over time than critically ill patients without COVID-19. Diversity at the first time point correlated inversely with disease severity during hospitalization, and microbiome composition was associated with L/N ratios and PBMC profiles in blood. Intubated patients showed patient-specific and dynamic lung microbiome communities, with prominence of Staphylococcus . Anelloviridae and Redondoviridae showed more frequent colonization and higher titers in severe disease. Machine learning analysis demonstrated that integrated features of the microbiome at early sampling points had high power to discriminate ultimate level of COVID-19 severity.

Conclusions: The respiratory tract microbiome and commensal virome are disturbed in COVID-19, correlate with systemic immune parameters, and early microbiome features discriminate disease severity. Future studies should address clinical consequences of airway dysbiosis in COVID-19, possible use as biomarkers, and role of bacterial and viral taxa identified here in COVID-19 pathogenesis.

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