Intestinal Damage in COVID-19: SARS-CoV-2 Infection and Intestinal Thrombosis

Authors: Xiaoming Wu1Haijiao Jing1Chengyue Wang1Yufeng Wang1Nan Zuo1Tao Jiang2*Valerie A. Novakovic3 and Jialan Shi1,3,4* Front. Microbiol., 22 March 2022 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fmicb.2022.860931

The intestinal tract, with high expression of angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), is a major site of extrapulmonary infection in COVID-19. During pulmonary infection, the virus enters the bloodstream forming viremia, which infects and damages extrapulmonary organs. Uncontrolled viral infection induces cytokine storm and promotes a hypercoagulable state, leading to systemic microthrombi. Both viral infection and microthrombi can damage the gut–blood barrier, resulting in malabsorption, malnutrition, and intestinal flora entering the blood, ultimately increasing disease severity and mortality. Early prophylactic antithrombotic therapy can prevent these damages, thereby reducing mortality. In this review, we discuss the effects of SARS-CoV-2 infection and intestinal thrombosis on intestinal injury and disease severity, as well as corresponding treatment strategies.

Introduction

COVID-19 has become a worldwide pandemic causing widespread illness and mortality. SARS-CoV-2 mainly infects the respiratory tract through attachment to angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) receptors (Lan et al., 2020). ACE2 is also highly expressed on intestinal epithelial cells, allowing SARS-CoV-2 to infect the intestinal tract (Xiao et al., 2020a). Recent meta-analyses show that 48%–54% of fecal samples from COVID-19 patients have tested positive for viral RNA, and 15%–17% of patients have gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms (Cheung et al., 2020Mao et al., 2020Sultan et al., 2020). Additionally, live virus can be isolated from fecal samples of COVID-19 patients (Wang et al., 2020). Some studies have proposed fecal–oral transmission as the cause of intestinal infection (Guo et al., 2021). However, direct evidence for fecal–oral transmission is still lacking. Meanwhile, the virus has been detected in the blood of both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients (Chang et al., 2020), and disseminated virus could infect extrapulmonary organs (Jacobs and Mellors, 2020). Thus, the potential that intestinal infection occurs via blood transmission should be carefully considered.

Pulmonary infection triggers cytokine storm and induces a prothrombotic state (McFadyen et al., 2020Moore and June, 2020). Venous and arterial thrombosis are common in COVID-19 (Moore and June, 2020). Systematic reviews estimate that 14%–31% of in-hospital patients develop a clinically apparent thrombotic event (Suh et al., 2021Tan et al., 2021), while autopsy reports show a high prevalence of microthrombi in multiple organs, including lung, heart, liver, kidney, and gastrointestinal tract (Bradley et al., 2020Polak et al., 2020). A cohort study showed that COVID-19 patients with intestinal ischemia had markedly elevated D-dimer levels and poor outcomes (Norsa et al., 2020). Additionally, recent studies have shown that mesenteric thrombosis often results in intestinal resection and significantly increases mortality (Bhayana et al., 2020El Moheb et al., 2020). Therefore, it is essential to outline the mechanisms of intestinal thrombosis and its contribution to intestinal damage and disease progression.

In this review, we discuss blood transmission as a potential route for intestinal infection. We then summarize the characteristics and mechanism of intestinal thrombosis formation in COVID-19. Next, we focus on the effects of intestinal infection and thrombosis on intestinal damage and disease severity. Finally, we discuss therapeutic strategies to prevent intestinal damage.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms and SARS-CoV-2 Infection

Multiple studies have reported GI symptoms in COVID-19 patients, including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, anorexia, and abdominal pain (Cheung et al., 2020Mao et al., 2020Sultan et al., 2020). According to a meta-analysis comprising 10,890 COVID-19 patients, the pooled prevalence estimates of GI symptoms were: diarrhea (7.7%), nausea or vomiting (7.8%), and abdominal pain (2.7%; Sultan et al., 2020) with 10% of these patients reporting GI symptoms as being their initial symptoms (Cheung et al., 2020). These data indicate potential gastrointestinal infection by SARS-CoV-2, which is reported to infect and replicate in epithelial cells of human small intestinal organoids (Zang et al., 2020). Both viral nucleocapsid proteins and viral particles have been detected in infected patient intestinal biopsies (Livanos et al., 2021). Additionally, SARS-CoV-2 RNA and live virus can be found in the stool of patients (Wang et al., 2020). More importantly, SARS-CoV-2 subgenomic mRNA is transcribed in actively replicating cells and has been detected in fecal samples (Wölfel et al., 2020). Further, rectal viral shedding persists for longer than that of the respiratory system (Zhao et al., 2020). All these data demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 directly infects and replicates in intestinal epithelial cells of patients.

Intestinal Infection and Transmission Routes

With the deepening understanding of COVID-19, GI symptoms have been recognized as early signs of the disease. The high expression of ACE2 in the GI tract, isolation of live virus from fecal samples, and a subset of patients presenting with only GI symptoms seem to suggest fecal–oral transmission. However, problems with the feasibility of this mode of transmission remain. First, studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 loses infectivity in simulated gastric acid within 10 min (Chan et al., 2020Zang et al., 2020Zhong et al., 2020). Secondly, SARS-CoV-2, as an enveloped virus, is largely unable to withstand the detergent effect of bile salts and the activity of digestive enzymes in the duodenum (Figure 1). Although some studies have suggested that highly viscous mucus in the gastrointestinal tract protects SARS-CoV-2, allowing the virus to retain its infectivity (Guo et al., 2021Zhang H. et al., 2021), there is still a lack of direct evidence. Bushman et al. (2019) had previously investigated the links between the structures of viruses and routes of transmission and found a strong association between fecal–oral transmission and the absence of a lipid envelope. Lastly, although some studies have isolated intact viruses from feces (Wang et al., 2020Zhang Y. et al., 2020Zhou et al., 2020Xiao et al., 2020b), most of them have not further confirmed the infectivity of these viruses (Wang et al., 2020Zhang Y. et al., 2020Xiao et al., 2020b). Zhou et al. (2020) confirmed viral propagation by RT-PCR, but only in a single fecal sample. Previous research has shown that SARS-CoV-2 is completely inactivated in simulated human colonic fluid over the course of 24 h, which may explain the sporadic detection of infection-active SARS-CoV-2 from feces samples.FIGURE 1

Figure 1. Intestinal infection and transmission routes. ① Direct evidence for fecal–oral transmission is still lacking. SARS-CoV-2 may be unable to enter the small intestine from the stomach due to gastric acid, bile and digestive enzymes. ② SARS-CoV-2 released from type II alveolar cells infects alveolar capillary endothelial cells (ECs). The virus replicates in ECs and is released into the blood to form viremia. ③ SARS-CoV-2 is released from infected ciliary cells of the nasal cavity and breaks through the basement membrane, infecting the vascular ECs and eventually entering circulation. ④ Blood transmission after alveolar or nasal infection is a potential route of intestinal infection. Eventually, SARS-CoV-2 is released into the gut and infects surrounding intestinal epithelial cells along the intestinal tract. ⑤ SARS-CoV-2 in the gut can also enter the capillaries and cause viremia, leading to recurrence of disease.

Several lines of evidence suggest that SARS-CoV-2 may infect the intestinal tract via the bloodstream. Deng et al. (2020) detected SARS-CoV-2 RNA in anal swabs from intratracheally but not intragastrically infected rhesus macaques, suggesting blood transmission. Indeed, SARS-CoV-2 RNA has been detected in blood and urine samples of patients (Wang et al., 2020). The virus can also be detected in multiple organs (including heart, brain, and kidney) and is associated with organ injury, indicating that the virus can reach and infect extrapulmonary organs (Puelles et al., 2020). Another study showed that SARS-CoV-2 viremia was associated with intestinal damage, independent of disease severity (Li Y. et al., 2021). Thus, blood transmission could be the cause of intestinal infection. Specifically, SARS-CoV-2 replicating in alveolar epithelial cells and capillary ECs is released into the bloodstream and infects new vascular ECs. The capillary network is then the main route by which the virus enters and infects extrapulmonary organs. The extensive surface area of intestinal capillaries makes intestinal epithelial cells more susceptible to infection than other extrapulmonary organs. Following infection of intestinal capillaries, SARS-CoV-2 is released into the gut and infects surrounding intestinal epithelial cells along the intestinal tract (Figure 1). Once established in the gut, SARS-CoV-2 can also reenter the capillaries, potentially leading to recurrence of disease. Consistent with this, in patients who experienced recurrence, the phylogenetic analysis of infection samples has shown that recurrent virus evolves from the original parent virus (Hu et al., 2020).

Additionally, SARS-CoV-2 RNA can also be detected in the blood and urine of asymptomatic patients, suggesting a second pathway to viremia through the nasal cavity (Chang et al., 2020Hasanoglu et al., 2021). The abundant blood vessels, thin mucous membrane, and higher levels of ACE2 (Huang et al., 2021) make it possible for the virus to initiate viremia from the nasal cavity. Specifically, SARS-CoV-2 is released from infected ciliary cells of the nasal cavity and breaks through the basement membrane, infecting the vascular ECs and eventually entering circulation (Figure 1). Blood transmission after nasal infection is therefore another potential route of intestinal infection.

Intestinal Damage, Malnutrition, and Poor Outcomes

A recent study has shown that a fecal sample positive for SARS-CoV-2 RNA at any time during hospitalization was associated with higher mortality [HR: 3.4 (1.2–9.9); Das Adhikari et al., 2021]. Similarly, another study showed that small-bowel thickening on CT was strongly associated with ICU admission (Wölfel et al., 2020). This relationship did not hold for colon or rectal thickening. These data indicates that small-bowel damage contributes to poor outcomes. As the main organ for nutrient absorption, damage to the small intestine will result in malabsorption and malnutrition, both of which commonly occur in COVID-19 patients (Di Filippo et al., 2021Lv et al., 2021) and are associated with disease severity (Luo et al., 2020Zhang P. et al., 2021). A fecal metabolome study showed that feces of COVID-19 patients were enriched with important nutrients that should be metabolized or absorbed, consistent with malabsorption (Lv et al., 2021). A prospective study showed that 29% of COVID-19 patients (31% of hospitalization patients and 21% of patients quarantined at home) had lost >5% of body weight [median weight loss, 6.5 (5.0–9.0) kg or 8.1 (6.1–10.9) %; Di Filippo et al., 2021]. Those patients with weight loss had greater systemic inflammation, impaired renal function and longer disease duration. A large, multicenter study (including 3,229 patients with GI symptoms) showed that 23% of patients had malnutrition, of whom 56.4% were unable to gain weight after 6 months follow-up (Rizvi et al., 2021). Studies also showed that malnutrition was associated with higher incidences of acute respiratory distress syndrome, acute myocardial injury, secondary infection, shock, and 28-day ICU mortality (Luo et al., 2020Zhang P. et al., 2021). Overall, malabsorption and malnutrition due to damaged small intestine increased disease severity and mortality.

Nutrient absorption in the small intestine is mainly through ATP-dependent active transport. Intestinal infection, hypoxemia, and intestinal ischemia contribute to malabsorption. SARS-CoV-2 adhesion depletes ACE2 levels on intestinal epithelial cells, which alters the expression of the neutral amino acid transporter B0AT1, reducing the intake of tryptophan and the production of nicotinamide (D’Amico et al., 2020). Meanwhile, uncontrolled viral replication consumes large amounts of ATP and nutrients, resulting in decreased nutrients entering the bloodstream. More importantly, anaerobic glycolysis caused by hypoxemia and intestinal ischemia significantly decreases ATP and active transport, leading to malabsorption. Additionally, hypoxemia and intestinal ischemia can also cause anorexia, nausea, vomiting, and enteral nutrition intolerance, reducing food intake. A prospective multicenter study showed that reduced food intake was associated with higher ICU admission and mortality (Caccialanza et al., 2021).

Intestinal Ischemia and Thrombosis

Intestinal ischemia is a common manifestation in COVID-19 patients. Autopsy results have shown that 31.6% of deceased patients had focal ischemic intestinal changes (Chiu et al., 2020). In a separate imaging study, bowel wall thickening and pneumatosis intestinalis, which indicate intestinal ischemia, were found on 38.1% (16 of 42) of abdominal CT images (Bhayana et al., 2020). Of these, 4 (9.5%) patients with pneumatosis intestinalis developed severe intestinal necrosis and needed resection. In another cohort study, 55.8% (58/104) of ICU patients developed an ileus (Kaafarani et al., 2020). Although mechanical factors cannot be ruled out, insufficient intestinal motility due to intestinal ischemia was more likely to be the cause of ileus in COVID-19 patients. In these patients with ileus, 4 (3.8%) developed severe intestinal ischemia and require emergency surgery. Both studies found microthrombi in these resected intestinal samples, which were the main cause of intestinal ischemia and increased mortality.

Additional intestinal ischemia and necrosis follows the formation of mesenteric thrombosis. However, there is currently relatively little data of mesenteric thrombus in COVID-19. Therefore, we have summarized the characteristics of 40 patients in 39 case reports published on PubMed (Supplementary Table 1). The median age of these patients was 50 (20–82) years, 26 (65%) were male, 38 (95%) developed bowel ischemia or necrosis, 30 (75%) needed bowel resection, 7 (17.5%) required no surgery, at least 3 (7.5%) developed sepsis, and 13 (32.5%) died. Other abdominal thrombotic events (such as celiac aortic thrombosis) leading to mesenteric ischemia can also result in severe intestinal necrosis and require intestinal resection (Zamboni et al., 2021).

Mild intestinal ischemia can lead to reduced diet and malabsorption. Severe intestinal ischemia or necrosis leads to the dissemination of gut bacteria, endotoxins, and microbial metabolites into the blood (Figure 2 bottom), aggravating hyperinflammation and the hypercoagulability state. Such patients need emergency excision of the necrotic bowel, which significantly increases mortality.FIGURE 2

Figure 2. Intestinal thrombosis leads to intestinal mucosal necrosis and dissemination of gut bacteria, endotoxins, and microbial metabolites in blood. (Top) Mesenteric vascular endotheliitis (initiated by viremia and accelerated by cytokines), hyperactivated platelets and high levels of phosphatidylserine (PS) promote a high rate of mesenteric thrombus in COVID-19 patients (mesenteric vein is shown in Supplementary Figure 1). (Bottom) Intestinal microthrombi and hypoxemia rapidly lead to intestinal mucosal ischemia and necrosis. The damaged gut–blood barrier leads to dissemination of gut bacteria, endotoxins, and microbial metabolites in blood.

Long-Term Gastrointestinal Sequelae

Long-term GI complications are common in recovering COVID-19 patients. In one systematic review of post-acute COVID-19 manifestations, diarrhea was among the top 10 most common complaints, with a prevalence of 6%. Other long-term GI symptoms include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, loss of appetite, and weight loss (Aiyegbusi et al., 2021Huang et al., 2021). The exact mechanisms of the GI sequelae remain unclear. Recently, persistent endotheliopathy, higher levels of thrombin (Fogarty et al., 2021), and residual SARS-CoV-2 viral antigens in the GI tract (Cheung et al., 2022) were described in convalescent COVID-19 patients. These data suggest that prolonged intestinal infection, persistent endothelial injury (abnormal intestinal–blood barrier), and microthrombi could be causes of the persistent GI symptoms.

The Mechanisms of Intestinal Thrombosis

Damaged Endothelial Cells

Resected bowel samples from COVID-19 patients routinely exhibit thrombi and endotheliitis, indicating the important role of EC injury in mesenteric thrombosis (Bhayana et al., 2020Chiu et al., 2020Kaafarani et al., 2020). SARS-CoV-2 infection (Varga et al., 2020) and elevated inflammatory cytokines (He et al., 2016) damage mesenteric vascular ECs. In response, EC cell margins retract, extending phosphatidylserine (PS) positive filopods and releasing endothelial microparticles (MPs; Figure 3BHe et al., 2016). The PS+ filopods and MPs can be co-stained by Xa and Va and support fibrin formation (Figures 3BD). The exposed PS then activates tissue factor on ECs, triggering the extrinsic coagulation pathway (Versteeg et al., 2013). Next, higher levels of FVIII and vWF released from damaged EC contribute to the hypercoagulable state and platelet aggregation, respectively (Goshua et al., 2020). Thrombomodulin is then released from ECs in its soluble form, which has an attenuated capacity to activate Protein C due to a lack of other cofactors on ECs, such as endothelial protein C receptor (Versteeg et al., 2013). Finally, upregulation of endothelial cell adhesion molecules recruits neutrophils and platelets and further contributes to thrombosis (Tong et al., 2020Li L. et al., 2021).FIGURE 3

Figure 3. Phosphatidylserine exposure on activated/apoptotic cells and microparticles (MPs) promotes fibrin formation. (A) Phosphatidylserine is usually confined to the inner leaflet of the cell membrane. This asymmetry is maintained through ATP-dependent inward transport of PS by flippases and outward transport of non-PS by floppases (left). Upon stimulation, calcium transients will inhibit ATP-dependent transport and stimulate the nonselective lipid transporter scramblase (ATP-independent), resulting in PS exposure (right). (B–D) Human umbilical vein ECs were treated with healthy human plasma and TNF-ɑ (our previous study; He et al., 2016). (B) ECs retracts the cell margins, extends PS positive filopods and releases endothelial-MPs. (C) The PS+ filopods and MPs can be co-stained by Xa and Va. (D) ECs (green) were incubated with MPs-depleted plasma (MDP) in the presence of calcium for 30 min and stained with Alexa Fluro 647-anti-fibrin for 30 min. Considerable fibrin stands among cultured ECs along with filopodia. (E) Confocal images showed PS expression on platelets of patients stained with Alexa 488 lactadherin (our previous study; Ma et al., 2017). MPs from the activated platelet (*) had formed at the margin area located between the distinct outlines. (F) MPs from plasma were co-stained by Xa and Va (or lactadherin and annexin V; our previous study; Gao et al., 2015). (G) MPs that were incubated with recalcified MDP for 30 min and stained with Alexa Fluro 647-anti-fibrin for 30 min. Converted fibrin networks were detected around MPs. The inset bars represent 5 μm in (B–D,G) and 2 μm in (E,F).

Hyperactivated Platelets and Phosphatidylserine Storm

Although COVID-19 patients exhibit mild thrombocytopenia, the remaining platelets are hyperactivated (Manne et al., 2020Taus et al., 2020Zaid et al., 2020). Studies have shown that platelets from COVID-19 patients have increased P-selectin and αIIbβ3 expression. P-selectin on activated platelets interacts with integrin αIIb3 on monocytes to form platelet-monocyte complexes, which induce monocyte tissue factor expression (Hottz et al., 2020). The activated platelets can also induce neutrophils to release neutrophil extracellular traps (NETs; Middleton et al., 2020). Furthermore, platelets from COVID-19 patients aggregate and adhere more efficiently to collagen-coated surfaces under flow conditions (Manne et al., 2020Zaid et al., 2020). Meanwhile, activated platelets release α- and dense-granule contents including FV, FXI, fibrinogen and vWF (Zaid et al., 2020). In addition, activated platelets also produce inflammatory cytokines, fueling cytokine storm (Taus et al., 2020Zaid et al., 2020). Most importantly, activated platelets expose higher levels of PS and release higher numbers of PS+ MPs (Figures 3EGZaid et al., 2020Althaus et al., 2021).

Phosphatidylserine is the most abundant negatively charged phospholipid in mammalian cells and is usually confined to the inner leaflet of the cell membrane (Versteeg et al., 2013). This asymmetry is maintained through ATP-dependent inward transport of PS by flippases and outward transport of other phospholipids by floppases (Figure 3A left). Upon stimulation, transiently increased calcium inhibits ATP-dependent transport and stimulates the nonselective lipid transporter scramblase (ATP-independent), resulting in PS exposure on the outer membrane (Figure 3A right). During this process, microvesicles derived from the budding of cellular membranes will be released. These MPs are typically <1 μm and express PS (Burnier et al., 2009). The exposure of PS on the surface of cells and MPs provides a catalytic surface for factor Xa and thrombin formation in vivo (Versteeg et al., 2013). We have previously demonstrated that PS mediates 90% of Xa and thrombin formation and significantly increases thrombosis in vivo (Shi and Gilbert, 2003).

Cytokines and virus infection can activate blood cells and ECs, resulting in higher levels of PS+ cells and MPs. As COVID-19 progresses, the developing cytokine storm activates more blood cells, leading to PS storm. Platelets are highly sensitive to circulating cytokines, releasing large amounts of cytokines and PS exposed MPs into the plasma (Taus et al., 2020Althaus et al., 2021) and thus are a major contributor to PS storm. Previous studies found an unusual elevation of FVa in severe COVID-19 patients (248 IU/dl, higher than any previous disease; Stefely et al., 2020von Meijenfeldt et al., 2021). The degree of FVa elevation in these patients may be the result of PS storm.

Collectively, SARS-CoV-2 infection is the initiating factor for injury of the intestinal vascular ECs, which is then aggravated by systemic cytokines, leading to endotheliitis. Subsequently, the hyperactivated platelets in circulation rapidly accumulate around the damaged ECs, inducing tissue factor expression, NET release, and activating the intrinsic/extrinsic coagulation pathways. Simultaneously, the high levels of PS expression in circulating cells and MPs further promote thrombin and fibrin formation (Figure 2 top).

Early Antithrombotic Treatment

Vaccines and antithrombotic therapy are effective measures to reduce intestinal damage and fight against the COVID-19 pandemic (Baden et al., 2021Chalmers et al., 2021). Vaccines induce adaptive immunity to clear the virus, reducing intestinal infection and intestinal damage. However, the usefulness of vaccines is limited by incomplete vaccine acceptance and viral mutations (Hacisuleyman et al., 2021Wang et al., 2021). Vaccines are also ineffective for already infected patients. Therefore, more attention should be paid to antithrombotic therapy. Studies had shown that thrombotic events mainly occurred within 7 days of COVID-19 diagnosis (both inpatients and outpatients; Mouhat et al., 2020Ho et al., 2021). Meanwhile, two large randomized controlled trials (RCTs) from the same platform showed that therapeutic anticoagulation reduced mortality in moderate cases but not in severe ones, suggesting that delayed anticoagulant therapy may lead to treatment failure (REMAP-CAP Investigators et al., 2021a,b). More importantly, a recent study reported three asymptomatic COVID-19 patients who developed abdominal (or intestinal) thrombosis leading to intestinal necrosis (Zamboni et al., 2021). All these data suggest that antithrombotic therapy should be initiated once COVID-19 is diagnosed (excluding patients with contraindications). Early prophylactic antithrombotic therapy can reduce the activation of vascular ECs and blood cells, preventing intestinal thrombosis, ensuring sufficient intestinal perfusion, maintaining the normal gut–blood barrier, avoiding malabsorption, malnutrition, and intestinal flora entering the bloodstream. Further, attenuated injury and decreased microthrombi in convalescent patients may lower the risk of long-term GI sequelae. Meanwhile, unobstructed systemic circulation can also accelerate the removal of SARS-CoV-2, inflammatory cytokines and damaged blood cells by the mononuclear phagocyte system.

Anticoagulation

Table 1 summarizes the RCTs of anticoagulant therapy in COVID-19 patients. For outpatients, early anticoagulant therapy reduced hospitalization and supplemental oxygen (Gonzalez-Ochoa). While, delayed treatment had no similar effect (ACTIV-4B and Ananworanich). Thus, oral anticoagulant therapy should be initiated in outpatients once COVID-19 is diagnosed. For non-critically ill patients, therapeutic doses of low molecular weight heparin (LMWH) reduced thrombotic events and mortality, and increased organ support-free days (REMAP-CAP, ACTIV-4a, ATTACC; RAPID; HEP-COVID). However, therapeutic doses of rivaroxaban did not improve clinical outcomes and increased bleeding (ACTION). This is potentially because novel oral anticoagulants do not share the anti-inflammatory and antiviral functions of heparin. Intestinal damage might also result in abnormal absorption of oral anticoagulants. Therefore, therapeutic LMWH should be the first choice for non-critically ill patients. For critically ill patients, RCTs showed that moderate and therapeutic doses were not superior to prophylactic ones. Results from several other studies suggest that the overwhelming thrombosis leads to failure of anticoagulant therapy at therapeutic doses (Leentjens et al., 2021Poor, 2021). Faced with this dilemma, an editorial in N Engl J Med argued that profibrinolytic strategies should be considered (Ten Cate, 2021). More studies are needed to explore optimal antithrombotic therapy in critically ill patients.TABLE 1

Table 1. Randomized clinical trials of anticoagulant therapy in COVID-19 patients.

Inhibition of Platelet Activation

As COVID-19 progresses, cytokine storm activates platelets, which not only participate in primary hemostasis, but also are the major components of PS storm. Autopsy results show a high prevalence of platelet-fibrin-rich microthrombi in lung and extrapulmonary organs, including the gastrointestinal tract (Bradley et al., 2020Polak et al., 2020). Early inhibition of platelet activation can reduce platelet activity and prevent PS storm, thus decreasing thrombosis and mortality. Several observational studies have shown that aspirin decreases mechanical ventilation, ICU admission, and mortality (Chow et al., 2020Santoro et al., 2022). The RCTs testing antiplatelet agents were still preliminary. A recent RCT suggested that aspirin was associated with an increase in survival and reduction in thrombotic events (RECOVERY Collaborative Group, 2022). In addition, anti-inflammatory therapy (e.g., dexamethasone, 6 mg once daily; RECOVERY Collaborative Group et al., 2020) inhibits cytokine storm, as well as platelet activation, reducing mortality. Overall, inhibition of platelet activation is also important to reduce mortality through the prevention of thrombosis and organs damage.

Factors Influencing Antithrombotic Treatment

Thrombotic Risk Factors or Co-morbidities

Studies have shown that obesity, hyperglycemia and diabetes are associated with increased thrombotic events (including intestinal thrombosis), COVID-19 severity, and mortality (Drucker, 2021Stefan et al., 2021). Other thrombotic risk factors include previous venous thromboembolism, active cancer, known thrombophilic condition, recent trauma or surgery, age ≥70 years, respiratory/cardiac/renal failure, and inflammatory bowel disease (Susen et al., 2020). These factors or co-morbidities heighten basal inflammatory levels and endothelial damage, leading to premature cytokine and PS storms, ultimately increasing thrombosis and mortality. Thus, more active antithrombotic therapy strategies should be adopted in these patients. For patients with mild COVID-19 with these factors, the French Working Group on Perioperative Hemostasis and the French Study Group on Thrombosis and Hemostasis recommend higher (intermediate) doses of anticoagulant therapy (Susen et al., 2020). For moderately ill patients, therapeutic doses of anticoagulant therapy should be initiated as soon as possible to prevent excessive microthrombus formation. The need for extended thromboprophylaxis in discharged patients remains controversial. However, a recent RCT showed that rivaroxaban (10 mg/day, 35 days) improved clinical outcomes in discharged COVID-19 patients with higher thrombotic risk factors (Ramacciotti et al., 2022), supporting extended thromboprophylaxis in patients with these risk factors or co-morbidities.

Vaccination

Although more than half the world population has received at least one dose of the vaccines, there are relatively little data of antithrombotic therapy in vaccinated patients. Studies of viral dynamics show that the viral loads of vaccinated patients are as high as that of unvaccinated patients, but drop significantly faster (Brown et al., 2021Klompas, 2021). Thus, vaccinated patients have shorter hospital stays, and are less likely to progress to critical illness and death (Tenforde et al., 2021Thompson et al., 2021). Nevertheless, antithrombotic therapy is still beneficial for the vaccinated patients. Firstly, heparin has anti-inflammatory and antiviral functions and can interfere with the binding of SARS-CoV-2 to ACE2 and shorten the duration of virus infection (Kwon et al., 2020Pereyra et al., 2021). Secondly, antithrombotic therapy protects cells from damage, PS exposure, and microthrombi formation, maintains unobstructed blood circulation, and facilitates virus clearance (by vaccine-induced adaptive immunity). Thirdly, thrombosis remains an important factor in disease progression. Antithrombotic therapy further reduces thrombosis and mortality, especially in vaccinated patients with high risk factors or co-morbidities. Lastly, although vaccines reduce the incidence, a subset of vaccinated patients will still develop long-term sequelae or Long Covid (Ledford, 2021Antonelli et al., 2022). Persistent viral infection and microthrombi are the primary causes (Ledford, 2021Xie et al., 2022), and early antithrombotic therapy is still needed to prevent them.

Conclusion and Future Research

During COVID-19 disease progression, SARS-CoV-2 infiltrates the blood stream from the initial respiratory tract infection, causing viremia, hyperactivated platelets and PS storm. The virus settles into the vascular beds of extrapulmonary organs, ultimately causing infection of intestinal epithelial cell. Damaged ECs, combined with hyperactivated platelets and PS storm, promote intestinal thrombosis, resulting in intestinal ischemia or necrosis. The damaged gut–blood barrier leads to malabsorption, malnutrition and intestinal flora entering the bloodstream, which significantly increase disease severity and mortality. Prolonged intestinal infection, persistent endothelial injury and microthrombi contribute to the long-term GI sequelae after discharge. Early prophylactic antithrombotic therapy can prevent microthrombi, ensuring sufficient intestinal perfusion, maintaining the normal intestinal function, and reducing the risk of long-term GI sequelae. More active antithrombotic therapy should be adopted in patients with other thrombotic risk factors or co-morbidities. Even in vaccinated COVID-19 patients, antithrombotic therapy is also important to decrease (intestinal) thrombosis, mortality and the risk of long-term GI sequelae.

With the Omicron pandemic, patients requiring hospitalization and ICU treatment decline rapidly. However, people are increasingly concerned about Long Covid. In terms of long-term GI sequelae, the detailed mechanisms of prolonged intestinal infection and persistent microthrombi remain unclear. And whether anticoagulant therapy can decrease GI symptoms in patients with long-term GI sequelae deserves further study. Finally, the impact of vaccines on long-term GI sequelae remains unclear in previously infected and breakthrough infected patients.

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Review of Mesenteric Ischemia in COVID-19 Patients

Authors: Amit GuptaOshin SharmaKandhala SrikanthRahul MishraAmoli Tandon & Deepak Rajput  Indian Journal of Surgery (2022) Published: 

Abstract

The new coronavirus (COVID-19) infection, first detected in Wuhan, China in 2019 has become a pandemic that has spread to nearly every country in the world. Through October 11, 2021, more than 23 billion confirmed cases and 4.8 million fatalities were reported globally. The bulk of individuals afflicted in India during the first wave were elderly persons. The second wave, however, resulted in more severe diseases and mortality in even younger age groups due to mutations in the wild virus. Symptoms may range from being asymptomatic to fatal acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). In addition to respiratory symptoms, patients may present with gastrointestinal symptoms such as stomach pain, vomiting, loose stools, or mesenteric vein thrombosis. The frequency of patients presenting with thromboembolic symptoms has recently increased. According to certain studies, the prevalence of venous thromboembolism among hospitalized patients ranges from 9 to 25%. It was also shown that the incidence is significantly greater among critically sick patients, with a prevalence of 21–31%. Although the exact origin of thromboembolism is unknown, it is considered to be produced by several altered pathways that manifest as pulmonary embolism, myocardial infarction, stroke, limb gangrene, and acute mesenteric ischemia. Acute mesenteric ischemia (AMI) is becoming an increasingly prevalent cause of acute surgical abdomen in both intensive care unit (ICU) and emergency room (ER) patients. Mesenteric ischemia should be evaluated in situations with unexplained stomach discomfort. In suspected situations, appropriate imaging techniques and early intervention, either non-surgical or surgical, are necessary to avert mortality. The purpose of this article is to look at the data on acute mesenteric ischemia in people infected with COVID-19.

Introduction

Aside from the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system is the most common site of SARS-COV-2 infection. This might be because enterocyte and vascular endothelial membranes have large amounts of angiotensin-converting enzyme receptor 2, a membrane integral protein. As a result, the COVID virus induces direct enterocyte invasion as well as indirect endothelial injury-induced thrombosis/intestinal ischemia in the bowel [1]. ICU patients are more prone than non-ICU patients to suffer acute mesenteric ischemia. This might be because, in addition to the direct viral activity on vascular endothelium, ICU patients have extra persistent pro-inflammatory effects. Cases have been observed even among individuals who have recovered from infection [2]. A rising number of cases of acute mesenteric ischemia in COVID-19 patients have been reported in the literature since the outbreak of this pandemic (list of reported cases are summarized in the Table 1). AMI risk was shown to be increased with age, male sex, and comorbidities such as hypertension, obesity, and diabetes mellitus. Because of delayed clinical manifestation, AMI-related mortality is quite significant, with 60–80% [3].Table 1 Summary of the cases reported on mesenteric ischemia in COVID-19 patientsFull size table

Case summary

A 55 years old man with no known comorbidity presented to the emergency department of our institute with severe pain abdomen and multiple episodes of vomiting. He reported the recent recovery from the non-complicated COVID-related illness. He did not report any intake of anticoagulants. On clinical examination, abdomen was unremarkable. X-ray chest, x-ray erect abdomen, and ultrasound abdomen were unremarkable. Mesenteric ischemia was suspected and the patient was subjected to CT angiography abdomen, which revealed thrombus at the origin of the superior mesenteric artery and impending gangrene of the small bowel (Fig. 1). Emergency laparotomy was done and intraoperatively found the gangrenous bowel involving the distal jejunum and almost the entire ileum sparing the terminal ileum (Fig. 2). Resection of the gangrenous small bowel and end jejunostomy was done. Later, he was given ICU care, but unfortunately, the patient succumbed to multi-organ dysfunction syndrome.

figure 1
Fig. 1
figure 2
Fig. 2

Pathophysiology

Although the specific etiology of hypercoagulable state and subsequent mesenteric ischemia in COVID-19 patients is unknown, these thromboembolic events can be related to alterations in all three Virchow triad characteristics (vascular endothelial injury, hypercoagulability, and stasis). A variety of variables complicate the etiology of thrombus development, one of which is vascular endothelial injury. Capillary permeability, hemostasis, and fibrinolysis are all maintained by the vascular endothelium (Fig. 3). Direct invasion causes endothelial cells to be damaged and lysed, resulting in an imbalance between pro and anticoagulant states [4]. Furthermore, vascular endothelial cells displayed morphological changes such as cellular expansion, retraction, and intercellular connection breakage [5]. The elevated levels of pro-inflammatory markers, von Willebrand factor, tissue factor, fibrinogen, and circulating microvesicles in the COVID-19 patients explain their hypercoagulability [6]. Antiphospholipid antibodies are elevated in some situations [7]. Patients who are critically ill, on limited oxygen support, and mechanical breathing are less mobilized, which increases the risk of deep venous thrombosis [3].

figure 3
Fig. 3

These mesenteric vascular thromboses cause acute hypoxia in the intestinal wall, which stimulates the renin-angiotensin system, causing mesenteric vasospasm and an elevated risk of hypoxic injury. SARS-COV binds to ACE 2 receptors in intestinal cells, causing cell lysis [8]. As a result, both hypoxia and direct invasion can trigger intestinal cell death. The loss of this epithelial barrier function in the gut promotes increased contact with enteric bacteria/endotoxins and viral particle penetration into the circulation [5]. The hypoxia continues, resulting in transmural infarction, perforation, and peritonitis. In one example of mesenteric ischemia induced by invasive mucormycosis, the presence of fungal components in the mesenteric microcirculation was documented [2]. See the flow chart summarizing the pathophysiology of mesenteric ischemia in covid-19 infection.

Clinical Presentation

Patients with mesenteric ischemia may exhibit a range of symptoms, from nonspecific complaints to peritonitis-like symptoms. Most of the patients developed symptoms a few days after being discharged successfully with proper symptomatic inpatient care. Although the respiratory symptoms predominate mesenteric ischemia presents with nonspecific abdominal symptoms such as loose stools, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, abdominal distension, and bleeding per rectum may occur in addition to the usual clinical presentation with respiratory features [6]. When opposed to arterial thrombosis, venous thrombosis has a delayed onset of symptoms. At first, sudden onset pain in the abdomen may be the sole symptom, and it may develop after 5–14 days. Abdominal clinical examination is nonyielding in the majority of cases. Abdominal signs would not develop unless the bowel gangrene or bowel perforation with peritonitis occurs [9].

Investigations

Blood investigations

Despite extensive study on the subject of acute mesenteric ischemia, the associated biomarkers were shown to be neither sensitive nor selective [10]. Elevated lactic acid levels and fibrin degradation products like D-dimer have low specificity and remain elevated in severe COVID-19 without AMI. However, biomarkers associated with hypercoagulable conditions aid in the initiation of preventive treatment and, to a lesser extent, in the management of COVID-related thrombotic events. Increased biomarkers of inflammation and infection include leukopenia (due to corticosteroid usage) and other signs such as C-reactive protein, procalcitonin, and IL-6. D-dimer, ferritin, prothrombin time, and lactate dehydrogenase are additional significant markers. The severity of increased lactate dehydrogenase and ferritin levels is associated with high mortality[8].

Radiological imaging

In the emergency room, an X-ray of the abdomen and an ultrasound are helpful for early examinations. X-ray of the erect abdomen helps in initial assessment in cases presented with features of obstruction or perforation. Ultrasound in the early phase may show SMA occlusion and bowel spasm or ultrasound findings in the early stages of acute mesenteric ischemia may appear normal [11]. In the intermediate phase, USG is not useful because of the presence of a large amount of gas-filled intestinal loops. In the late phase, USG may reveal fluid-filled lumen, bowel wall thinning, evidence of extra-luminal fluid, decreased or absent peristalsis. Therefore, USG may be helpful in the diagnosis of advanced bowel obstruction, gangrene, and perforation with peritoneal collection [12]. Ultrasonography revealed some other important features with distended and sludge-filled gall bladder with bile stasis. Portal venous gas also can be detected on ultrasonography which can be better characterized with the help of computed tomography [13].

Computed tomography

The gold standard investigation is CT angiography. CT observations commonly encountered in acute mesenteric ischemia secondary to COVID-19 includes thrombus in the aorta/SMA/portal circulation, augmentation of the bowel wall, thickness of the bowel wall with distention(> 3 cm), edema, and stranding of the mesentery, pneumatosis intestinalis or portal venous gas suggesting bowel wall ischemia, and non-enhancing thick bowel wall seen in bowel infarction, bowel perforation secondary to bowel infarction may present discontinuity of bowel wall with localized air collection. One should remember that pneumatosis intestinalis may also occur due to mechanical ventilation. Pneumoperitoneum occurs when there is severe intestinal necrosis and perforation. There were additional reports of nonspecific features such as a dilated gut with a fluid-filled lumen, distended gallbladder with bile stasis, features of solid organ ischemia, and pancreatitis [14]. MRI, despite its accessibility, has drawbacks such as a longer acquisition time and lower resolution than CT angiography [12].

Management

A summary of cases of acute mesenteric ischemia has been tabulated (Table 1). Management of acute mesenteric ischemia in COVID-19 includes the following:

  • Supportive measures: Crystalloid rehydration and empirical antibacterial treatment should begin before angiography or any surgical resection. Comorbidity management, hemodynamic support in unstable patients, and electrolyte balance correction are all critical components of patient care [10].
  • Anticoagulation: There is insufficient data in 19 patients to warrant thromboprophylaxis. According to the Tang et al. study, low-dose heparin prophylaxis decreased thrombotic events and mortality in those with D-dimer levels over 3 mg/ml. Despite the increased risk of bleeding, mesenteric ischemia should be treated with intraoperative and postoperative anticoagulation [15].
  • Revascularisation: Revascularization with catheter-directed thrombolysis and thrombectomy by percutaneous/surgical intervention can be explored in instances where there is no indication of significant intestinal ischemia. Catheter-directed thrombolysis with unfractionated heparin and recombinant tissue plasminogen activators can accomplish this. Because of the increased risk of re-thrombosis, vascular clearance is not indicated in instances of superior mesenteric vein thrombus [15].
  • Resection of the gangrenous bowel: Depending on clinical suspicion, a CT angiography examination of mesenteric vasculature and bowel health can be performed, and an emergency exploration call should be placed. Intraoperatively, if the patient is normotensive, has no sepsis or peritonitis, and the remaining bowel viability is unquestionable, the gangrenous bowel is to be removed, and the remaining bowel can be considered for re-anastomosis. In unfavorable circumstances, a stoma should be created following gangrenous bowel resection [11]. The margin dissection in venous thrombosis should be broader than in arterial thrombosis. To assure the bowel’s survivability, abdominal closure should be temporary, and a relook laparotomy should be done 48 h later. Histopathological examination of the resected intestine may indicate patchy or widespread necrotic changes from mucosa to transmural thickness. In the submucosal vasculature, fibrin-containing microthrombi with perivascular neutrophilic infiltration is observed.
  • Management of short bowel syndrome: The therapy varies depending on the length of colon left after excision of infarcted bowel caused by mesenteric ischemia.
  • Medical- In severe diarrhea, fluid and electrolyte loss must be replaced. TPN for feeding and histamine-2 receptor antagonists or PPIs for stomach acid secretion reduction. Loperamide and diphenoxylate are anti-motility medicines that delay small intestine transit whereas Octreotide reduces the volume of gastrointestinal secretions.
  • Non-transplant surgical therapy- Done to improve the absorption capacity of the remaining intestine by restoring intestinal continuity. Increased nutrient and fluid absorption is the goal. Segmental reversal of the small bowel, fabrication of small intestinal valves, and electrical pacing of the small bowel are all procedures used to delay intestinal transit. Longitudinal intestinal lengthening and tailoring technique (LILT) and serial transverse arthroplasty process are two intestinal lengthening procedures (STEP).
  • Intestinal transplantation- Life-threatening problems such as liver failure, thrombosis of major central veins, frequent episodes of severe dehydration, and catheter-related sepsis are reasons for intestinal transplantation [16].

Prognosis

Acute mesenteric ischemia has a poor prognosis, and life is reliant on prompt diagnosis and treatment. If detected within 24 h, the likelihood of survival is 50%, but it declines to 30% beyond that [17].In operated cases, COVID infection acts as an independent risk factor and is responsible for higher mortality [18].

Conclusion

SARS-COV-2 infection even though initially thought to be respiratory infection; later cases detected presenting with multisystem involvement. The presentation may vary from asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic to severe respiratory distress syndrome or thromboembolic phenomenon requiring ICU care. The exact mechanism of thromboembolism is not established. However, the increasing number of acute mesenteric ischemia is quite alarming. The treating physician should be overcautious in patients presenting with abdominal symptoms either currently affected or recovered from COVID-related illness. In high-risk patients, early start of prophylactic anticoagulation may be beneficial. Earlier intervention is known acute mesenteric ischemia cases with operative or minimally invasive procedures may give higher survival benefits. It mandates more research to determine the causes of thromboembolism, as well as preventive and therapeutic anticoagulation in these individuals.

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COVID-19 – A vascular disease

Authors: Hasan K. Siddiqi,a,bPeter Libby,a,⁎ and Paul M Ridkera,b

Abstract

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) leads to multi-system dysfunction with emerging evidence suggesting that SARS-CoV-2-mediated endothelial injury is an important effector of the virus. Potential therapies that address vascular system dysfunction and its sequelae may have an important role in treating SARS-CoV-2 infection and its long-lasting effects.

SARS-CoV-2 infection and vascular dysfunction

In health, the vascular endothelium maintains homeostasis through regulation of immune competence, inflammatory equilibrium, tight junctional barriers, hemodynamic stability as well as optimally balanced thrombotic and fibrinolytic pathways. In the novel coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), dysregulation of many of these pathways has emerged as a mediator of severe disease. The constellation of clinical and biomarker derangements seen in COVID-19 can be classified into disruption of the immune, renin-angiotensin-aldosterone (RAA), and thrombotic balance, all of which converge on the vascular endothelium as a common pathway. Accumulating evidence from basic science, imaging and clinical observations, has clarified the picture of COVID-19 as a vascular disease. Understanding the disease in this context may provide novel avenues of understanding COVID-19 and lead to critically needed improvements in therapeutic strategies.

SARS-CoV-2 uses the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) to facilitate entry into target cells and initiate infection. This viral entry into the cell is further mediated by transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2) and cathepsin L which cleave the S protein on the viral particle to permit engagement with ACE2 [1]. Endothelial cells (ECs) in general and cardiac pericytes in particular express abundant ACE2, making them a direct target of SARS-CoV-2 infection (Fig. 1 ) [2]. Examination of the pulmonary vascular bed shows severe derangements in COVID-19, compared to control and influenza patients, particularly with widespread thrombosis and microangiopathy, endothelial activation and extensive angiogenesis [3]. These studies and pervasive findings establish the role of viral injury to the vascular system with resulting vascular dysfunction in COVID-19 patients [4].

Fig. 1

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SARS-CoV-2 Induced Endothelial Injury

Legend: A schematic of SARS-CoV-2 infection and proposed resulting endothelial injury, involving immune activation, pro-thrombotic milieu, and RAAS dysregulation. These insults interact with each other to cause end-organ dysfunction that is manifest in many COVID-19 patients.

TMPRSS2 = Transmembrane protease serine 2; ADAM17 = A disintegrin and metalloproteinase 17; TNF = Tumor necrosis factor; TNFr = Tumor necrosis factor receptor; TLR = toll-like receptor; DAMPs = Damage-associated molecular patterns; PAMPs = Pathogen-associated molecular patterns; PAI-1 = plasminogen activator inhibitor-1; vWF = von Willebrand factor; eNOS = endothelial nitric oxide; tPA = tissue plasminogen activator; AT1R = angiotensin 1 receptor; ARDS = acute respiratory distress syndrome.

For More Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7556303/