Extensive Lung Damage Seen in COVID-19 Autopsies

Lung Damage in COVID-19 Patients
  • A team of researchers analyzed 41 post-mortem samples from people who had died of COVID-19.
  • Other than alveolar damage, they also noticed the presence of extensive clotting and abnormally large cells within the lungs.
  • Researchers proposed the long-term effects of COVID-19 are likely due to the presence of abnormal cells within the lungs.

Initially, doctors predicted that the SARS-CoV-2 virus causes a flu-like illness or pneumonia in severe cases. However, they soon realized the virus’s potential of causing a wide variety of neurological, respiratory, and gastrointestinal symptoms in individuals. Furthermore, a significant number of people suffer from lingering symptoms of the disease – also called ‘long-covid’. Recently, a study published in the Lancet’s journal eBioMedicine, has found evidence of distinctive lung damage in patients who died from COVID-19. Thus, suggesting a possible cause of long-covid in individuals.

Distinctive Lung Damage Seen in COVID-19 Patients

Researchers from King’s College London, the University of Trieste, and the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biology in Italy took part in the study. They analyzed organs of 41 patients who died from COVID-19 between February to April 2020, at the University Hospital of Trieste, Italy. These included lung, heart, liver, and kidney samples. 

Extensive alveolar damage, commonly associated with ARDS (Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome), was present in all patients. However, researchers also observed two distinct patterns of lung injury in the autopsies. 

Firstly, samples from 71% of the participants showed extensive blood clotting. Thrombosis occurred in both small and large-sized vessels of the lungs. Secondly, 87% of the patients had a large number of dysmorphic cells within the lungs. These abnormal pneumocytes and giant syncytial cells are attributed to the spike protein on the surface of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

A Possible Cause of Long-Covid

These findings are very exciting. The findings indicate that COVID-19 is not simply a disease caused by the death of virus-infected cells but is likely the consequence of these abnormal cells persisting for long periods inside the lungs.

Professor Mauro Giacca, King’s College London

The authors of the study believe their research sheds light on the possible cause of long-covid. The team is currently searching for possible drugs that can target the viral spike proteins and consequently stop the formation of these abnormal lung cells. 


R. Bussani et al., Persistence of viral RNA, pneumocyte syncytia and thrombosis are hallmarks of advanced COVID-19 pathology, EBioMedicine (2020), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ebiom.2020.103104 


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