Laboratory Biomarkers for Diagnosis and Prognosis in COVID-19

Authors: Denise Battaglini, 1 , 2 , 3 Miquéias Lopes-Pacheco, 4 Hugo C. Castro-Faria-Neto, 5 Paolo Pelosi, 1 , 2 and Patricia R. M. Rocco 4 , 6 , 7 , * Front Immunol. 2022; 13: 857573.  Apr 27.  2022 doi: 10.3389/fimmu.2022.857573 PMCID: PMC9091347 PMID: 35572561


Severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) causes a wide spectrum of clinical manifestations, with progression to multiorgan failure in the most severe cases. Several biomarkers can be altered in coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), and they can be associated with diagnosis, prognosis, and outcomes. The most used biomarkers in COVID-19 include several proinflammatory cytokines, neuron-specific enolase (NSE), lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), aspartate transaminase (AST), neutrophil count, neutrophils-to-lymphocytes ratio, troponins, creatine kinase (MB), myoglobin, D-dimer, brain natriuretic peptide (BNP), and its N-terminal pro-hormone (NT-proBNP). Some of these biomarkers can be readily used to predict disease severity, hospitalization, intensive care unit (ICU) admission, and mortality, while others, such as metabolomic and proteomic analysis, have not yet translated to clinical practice. This narrative review aims to identify laboratory biomarkers that have shown significant diagnostic and prognostic value for risk stratification in COVID-19 and discuss the possible clinical application of novel analytic strategies, like metabolomics and proteomics. Future research should focus on identifying a limited but essential number of laboratory biomarkers to easily predict prognosis and outcome in severe COVID-19.


Severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) causes a wide spectrum of clinical manifestations, from mild respiratory symptoms to pneumonia and, in more severe cases, multiple organ failure (1). The mechanisms underlying multisystem involvement may include an unbalanced immune response that facilitates the progression of coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19). This hypothesis has been confirmed by laboratory biomarker alterations, showing greater potential for abnormal immune response, mainly an increase in neutrophil counts and a substantial reduction in lymphocyte counts, thus altering the neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio. Such an abnormal immune response is driven by an increased serum concentration of many pro-inflammatory mediators. These include interleukin (IL)-1β, IL-2, IL-6, IL-8, interferon (IFN)-γ-induced protein 10, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, monocyte chemoattractant protein 1, macrophage inflammatory protein-1α, and tumor necrosis factor-α, among others (25). Nevertheless, the inflammatory cytokine storm in patients with COVID-19 is less injurious than that observed in patients with sepsis or acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) but without COVID-19 (6), thus raising questions regarding the mechanisms underlying multiorgan involvement in COVID-19.

Several biomarkers other than cytokines have been found altered in COVID-19, and are associated with diagnosis, prognosis and outcomes (7). Some of these biomarkers can be easily used to predict disease severity, hospitalization, intensive care unit (ICU) admission, and mortality, while others, like metabolomic and proteomic analysis, are still of purely investigational concern and difficult to translate into clinical practice, despite their prognostic potential (810).

The aim of this narrative review is to identify laboratory biomarkers that have shown significant diagnostic and prognostic value for risk stratification in COVID-19 and to discuss the possible clinical application of novel analytic strategies, such as metabolomics and proteomics.

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Potential for Multiorgan Involvement in COVID-19

SARS-CoV-2 is an enveloped, single-stranded ribonucleic acid (ssRNA) virus. The SARS-CoV-2 genome is composed of two polypeptides encoded between two open-reading frames that are processed by viral proteases to produce nonstructural proteins (11). These proteins are involved in viral replication and suppression of host innate immune defense. On the other hand, structural proteins of SARS-CoV-2 include the spike (S), envelope (E), and nucleocapsid (N) protein, as well as the membrane (M) glycoprotein. The S protein is a transmembrane glycoprotein that is located on the viral surface and cleaved by host-cell proteases. After anchoring the S protein, SARS-CoV-2 enters host cells via angiotensin receptor-2 (ACE2), thus activating transmembrane serine protease 2 (TMPRSS2), cathepsin B and L. The E protein is a glycoprotein involved in virion maturation and pathogenesis, while the M protein is involved in viral assembly and delineates the shape of the viral envelope; finally, the N protein binds directly to viral RNA (11). The pathogenic mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 include 1) direct epithelial damage, 2) dysregulated immune response, 3) ACE2 dysregulation and downregulation of the renin-angiotensin- aldosterone system (RAAS), 4) direct endothelial damage, and, possibly, 5) tissue fibrosis (11). Hence, patients with severe COVID-19 are at high risk of multiple organ involvement and, ultimately, death. Indeed, the virus has been identified in multiple tissues, including endothelial, liver, kidney, pulmonary, and neuronal cells, suggesting direct invasion as possible pathological mechanism underlying systemic effects (1). Therefore, laboratory biomarkers of organ damage play a key role in the diagnosis, prediction, and prognosis of patients at high risk of multiorgan involvement, and their use should be implemented in clinical practice (1). Table 1 summarizes the most investigated biomarkers in COVID-19, while Figure 1 depicts possible multiorgan involvement in COVID-19. In the following section, we will describe individual organ systems and how they can be affected by severe COVID-19, associated laboratory and clinical biomarkers of damage, severity, and outcome, and their potential utility for patient management.

Table 1

Laboratory biomarkers in COVID-19.

BiomarkersClinical significance
Pulmonary functionNSEDyspnea
LDH, ASTMortality at admission, longer IMV
Surfactant protein-D, angiopoietin-2, TREM-1, TREM-2Severity
Thiol, ferritin, LDHARDS development
Platelet count, neutrophils/lymphocyte ratio, CRP, D-dimer, ferritinSurvival at extubation
Kynurenine, p-cresol sulphateLonger IMV
Metabolomic/proteomic: PPAR, D-arginine, D-ornithine, TRP, alpha linoleicFibrosis
Inflammation and infectionPCTSeverity, mortality
Neutrophil countClinical outcome, mortality
Neutrophil/lymphocyte ratioSeverity, mortality
Lymphocyte count, CD3+, 4+, 8+, 25+, 127-, NK cellsSeverity, mortality
Cardiovascular functionNPs, troponinsCV disease, inflammation, mortality
CK-MB, myoglobin, D-dimer, BNP, NT-proBNP, neutrophil/lymphocyte ratioPrognosis
Coagulation and hemostasisD-dimerMortality
Plasma fibrinogenHyperinflammation, severity
sVCAM-1, vWF, thrombomodulin, sTNFRI, HS, C5b9, PAI-1, alpha-2 antiplasminSeverity
vWF, ADAMTS13Mortality
Endothelial dysfunctionSeverity of pulmonary impairment
Metabolic systemHDL cholesterolRisk of hospitalization
LDL cholesterolInflammation
Vitamin AARDS development, mortality
Metabolomic/proteomic: cAMPMortality
Thyroid hormonesSeverity, mortality
Neurological manifestationsGFAP, NfL, tau, S100B, NSE, inflammatory markersInflammation, severity
D-dimer, LDH, ESR, CRP, lymphocytes, PCT, creatinineOccurrence of ischemic stroke
Kidney and liver functionUrine 11-dehydro-thromboxane B2, 8-hydroxy-2’-deoxyguanosine, L-FABPHospitalization
N-acetyl-β-D-glucosaminidase, β2-microglobulin, α1-microglobulin, L-FABPHyperinflammation
PCT, arterial saturation of oxygen, blood urea nitrogenAcute kidney injury
CreatinineAcute kidney injury, mortality
Urine blood, urine weightMortality
Albumin, direct albumin, neutrophils, lymphocytes, mean corpuscular hemoglobinSeverity

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ADAMTS, a disintegrin and metalloproteinase with thrombospondin motifs, ARDS, acute respiratory distress syndrome, AST, aspartate aminotransferase, BNP, brain natriuretic peptide, cAMP, adenosine cyclic monophosphate, CD, cluster differentiation, CK-MB, creatine kinase, CRP, C-reactive protein, CV, cardiovascular, ESR, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, GFAP, glial fibrillary acidic protein, HDL, high density lipoproteins, HS, heparan sulfate, IMV, invasive mechanical ventilation, L-FABP, liver-type fatty acid binding protein, LDH, lactate dehydrogenase, LDL, low density lipoproteins, MR-proADM, mid-regional pro-adrenomedullin, NfL, neurofilament light polypeptide, NK, natural killer, NPs, natriuretic peptides, NSE, neuron specific enolase, NT-proBNP, N-terminal pro-hormone, PAI, plasminogen activator inhibitor, PCT, procalcitonin, PPAR, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptors, sTNFRI soluble tumor necrosis factor receptor I, sVCAM-1, vascular cells adhesion molecule-1, TREM, triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cells, TRP, transient receptor potential channel, vWF, von Willebrand.

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Figure 1

COVID-19 multiple organ dysfunction. This figure shows the potential for multiorgan involvement in COVID-19. Respiratory (AIP, acute interstitial pneumonia; ARDS, acute respiratory distress syndrome; DAD, diffuse alveolar damage), renal, cardiovascular, coagulative/hemostatic, liver, gastrointestinal, metabolic/endocrine, and cerebral functions and systems, as well as their possible alterations, are presented.

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Diagnostic and Prognostic Value of Biomarkers

Biomarkers reflecting multiple organ involvement and/or pharmacological effects have been widely examined in critically ill patients. Some of these biomarkers are also used to monitor dysfunction in distinct organs at the same time, due to their redundancy or non-specificity. However, the most appropriate biomarkers to be studied in critically ill patients with COVID-19 have yet to be defined. Figure 2 depicts a proposed algorithm for critical care management which includes the investigation of biomarkers in severe COVID-19 patients at ICU admission.

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Figure 2

Proposed algorithm for the management of patients with COVID-19 at ICU admission. This figure shows a potential algorithm for initial patient management at ICU admission, including the most useful biomarkers to be used in the COVID-19 critical care setting. Neurological system: sequential transcranial doppler (TCD) and/or optic nerve sheath diameter (ONSD) in sedated patients for whom conventional neurological evaluation is impossible. Cardiovascular system: electrocardiogram and echocardiography, as well as continuous monitoring of mean arterial pressure (MAP) and heart rate (HR), are suggested on ICU admission. Respiratory system: computed tomography (CT) scan is the gold standard; if not feasible, chest X-ray, CT angiography, and/or lung ultrasound should be performed. Lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), C-reactive protein (CRP), neuron specific enolase (NSE), neurofilament light polypeptide (NfL), glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), thyrotropic stimulating hormone (TSH), NGAL, aspartate transaminase (AST), alanine aminotransferase (ALT), gamma-glutamyl transferase (γGT), interleukin-6 (IL-6). BNP, brain natriuretic peptide; UN, urea nitrogen; NT-proBNP, N-terminal pro-hormone.

Respiratory System

The lungs are usually the organs affected primarily by SARS-CoV-2, due to their large and highly vascularized surface area (11). The pathogenesis of COVID-19 in the lung includes an initial phase of local inflammation, endothelial cell damage, and antifibrinolytic activation in the upper and lower respiratory tracts, followed by repair mechanisms that can elicit the restoration of normal pulmonary architecture. Inflammation is followed by platelet recruitment with degranulation, clot formation, altered vessel permeability, and accumulation of leukocytes in the injury site, leading to the recruitment of other inflammatory cells with the involvement of specific cytokines (i.e., IL-4, IL-13, transforming growth factor-β) that are also responsible for pro-fibrotic activity (12).

SARS-CoV-2 lung infection causes a wide variety of clinical manifestations and symptoms, from asymptomatic, mild, and moderate disease to severe COVID-19. Severe and critical illness accounts for up to 14% and 5% of cases, respectively, with the ARDS occurring in 10-20% of patients; multiorgan failure and death may supervene (1314). Various phenotypes have been identified by computed tomography (CT) (1516), including phenotype L or 1, which is characterized by low compliance, altered ventilation and perfusion, and shunting with focal hypo/hyper-perfused ground-glass opacities; and phenotype H or 2, which is identified by an inhomogeneous distribution of atelectasis with a patchy ARDS-like pattern (1718). Progressive evolution of COVID-19 (19) may lead to phenotype F, caused by mechanical stretch of lung epithelial cells and pathological fibro-proliferation and remodeling of the extracellular matrix, with increased expression of pro-fibrotic markers, as is mainly typical of severe forms of lung disease (20).

Although not specific to pulmonary disease, several biomarkers of different stages of lung involvement in COVID-19 have been identified and have been associated with pulmonary and systemic hyperinflammation and fibrotic damage (12). In the early disease course, neuron-specific enolase (NSE) can be used to differentiate patients who are going to develop dyspnea (21). On admission, higher lymphocyte and platelet counts and lower ferritin, D-dimer, lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), and aspartate transaminase (AST) have all been associated with lower risk of mortality in COVID-19 patients who ultimately required intubation and mechanical ventilation (22). Surfactant protein-D, angiopoietin-2, triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cell (TREM)-1, and TREM-2 levels were found to be higher in mild/moderate and severe/critical COVID-19 pneumonia than in asymptomatic and uncomplicated cases. Moreover, these biomarkers correlated well with clinical severity (2324). In severe COVID-19 cases, total thiol, ferritin, and LDH were identified as prognostic biomarkers for ARDS development (25). At extubation, COVID-19 survivors had higher platelet counts and neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratios and lower C-reactive protein (CRP), D-dimer, ferritin, LDH, and AST (22).

Infection and Systemic Inflammatory Response

Following SARS-CoV-2 invasion of the host cells, the virus replicates at the infection site, thus triggering activation of the innate and adaptive immune responses (26). Neutrophils are rapidly recruited to infection foci, while innate cells recognize the virus and secrete multiple cytokines. Antigen-presenting cells recognize viral antigens which are carried to the local lymph nodes, while activating the T-helper cell response, which is also responsible for stimulating B cells to secrete antibodies (27). The systemic immune-inflammatory response is activated; if left unchecked, this may progress to multiorgan illness (28).

Patients with severe COVID-19 are highly susceptible to superimposed bacterial, fungal, and viral infections, including ventilator-associated pneumonia and bloodstream infection, among others (2930). As for systemic biomarkers of infection, procalcitonin is a predictor of disease severity (31), and can be useful to guide antimicrobial stewardship (3233). Another study found an association between procalcitonin and mortality in COVID-19 patients more than 75 years old (34). Neutrophil count was also predictive of clinical outcome in hospitalized COVID-19 patients (35), while the neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio was strongly associated with severity and mortality in COVID-19 (36). Additionally, total lymphocyte count, cluster differentiation (CD)3+, CD4+, CD8+, CD25+, CD127 T cells, and natural killer (NK) cells were found to be depressed in severe COVID-19 (37), whereas C-reactive protein, erythrocyte sedimentation rate, and IL-6 – common markers of inflammation – were elevated (38).

Cardiovascular System

SARS-CoV-2 can directly trigger endothelial dysfunction, causing a status known as COVID-19-associated coagulopathy. After viral entry into the cells, increased vascular permeability and tissue factor expression in subendothelial cells, with activation of platelets and leukocytes, may trigger the coagulation cascade. Endothelial damage and a generalized inflammatory state are drivers of thrombosis, which can contribute to cardiovascular manifestations (39).

Cardiovascular manifestations of COVID-19 are frequently reported (240). Acute heart failure and exacerbation of chronic heart failure are reported in up to 20-30% of hospitalized patients, and carry high mortality rates, especially in patients with severe comorbidities (4143). Acute coronary syndrome has been reported in a high proportion of patients, probably because of plaque rupture, coronary spasm, or microthrombi triggered by systemic inflammation and cytokine storm (44). In general, the mechanisms underlying cardiovascular manifestations include increased cardiac workload, hypoxemia, hypervolemia, myocardial injury, arrhythmias, myocarditis, stress-induced cardiomyopathy, acute kidney injury, and, as noted above, systemic inflammatory response with the release of several cytokines and chemokines (45). Triggering mechanisms may be attributed to an imbalance between heightened cardiac workload and reduced oxygen supply secondary to systemic conditions, with possible type-2 myocardial infarction (46).

Cardiac biomarkers (47), electrocardiography (ECG), and transthoracic echocardiography (TTE) play a pivotal role in risk stratification and early detection of cardiovascular complications, as well as to guide treatment (4849). Recent evidence confirmed that cardiac biomarkers, including natriuretic peptides (NPs) and troponins, may reflect cardiovascular involvement and inflammation in COVID-19, and are strongly associated with poor prognosis and mortality (415053). In some cases, troponin elevation in COVID-19 has been associated with ECG changes (54), ICU admission, and in-hospital death (5556). However, despite the confirmed prognostic impact of troponins, routine testing is still a matter of debate, because of several other variables that have been associated with outcome and prognosis (48). Additionally, pre-existing cardiac disease and/or acute stress injury may justify mild elevations in cardiac troponins, while myocarditis, Takotsubo syndrome, type 2 myocardial infarction triggered by severe respiratory failure, systemic hypoxemia, or shock are mostly associated with more marked increase in troponins (445758). Other cardiac and non-cardiac biomarkers are common findings in COVID-19-associated cardiovascular disease, including creatine kinase (CK)-MB, myoglobin, D-dimer, brain natriuretic peptide (BNP) and its N-terminal pro-hormone (NT-proBNP), and neutrophil-to-lymphocyte ratio (555961). Myoglobin seems to offer higher prognostic accuracy than other cardiac-specific biomarkers (troponins and CK-MB) in COVID-19 (62). Moreover, mid-regional pro-adrenomedullin (MR-proADM) levels were found to be associated with endothelial dysfunction and mortality in COVID-19, potentially making it an optimal biomarker for the prediction of survival in this patient population (63). Nevertheless, only limited evidence exists so far to define any of these biomarkers as an independent predictor of prognosis in COVID-19 (4864).

Coagulation and Hemostasis

Coagulation derangement is a well-known systemic effect of COVID-19 that can originate from direct or indirect viral impact on the endothelium, or from immunothrombosis (65). COVID-19 can cause alterations in the coagulation cascade, with imbalance of the regulatory mechanisms of coagulation and fibrinolysis, altered platelet function, and a hyperinflammatory response (1165). In this context, D-dimer has been identified among the first altered coagulation biomarkers in COVID-19, and is predictive of mortality on admission (66). Similarly, plasma fibrinogen appears to be associated with hyperinflammation and disease severity in COVID-19 (67). A coagulopathy signature diagnostic of COVID-19 has been identified, including elevated levels of soluble vascular cell adhesion molecule (sVCAM)-1 (68), von Willebrand Factor (vWF), thrombomodulin, soluble tumor necrosis factor (TNF) receptor I (sTNFRI), heparan sulfate, C5b9 complement, plasminogen activator inhibitor (PAI)-1, and alpha-2 antiplasmin, among others. Some of these markers, such as sVCAM-1, vWF, sTNFRI, and heparan sulfate, were also associated with disease severity (69). Fibrinogen, thrombin peak, vWF, and ADAMTS13 at admission and elevated vWF : Ag to ADAMTS13 activity ratio were associated with severity and higher risk of death (7071). Endothelial dysfunction seems to be persistent after resolution of COVID-19, and directly associated with the severity of pulmonary impairment (72).

Metabolic Function

Sphingolipid metabolism regulates the inflammation and immune response through the conversion of sphingosine to sphingosine 1-phosphate, increasing the release of lymphocytes into the blood, with subsequent systemic inflammation and release of cytokines and chemokines in COVID-19 (73). Like lipid metabolism, fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin D have been implicated in suppressing the cytokine storm and enhancing the immune response (74). Investigating lipid metabolism and its biomarkers could thus be of diagnostic and prognostic value in COVID-19.

Metabolic comorbidities including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular, and hypertension have been associated with poor prognosis in COVID-19 (75). A certain degree of metabolic dysregulation has been found in COVID-19, possibly due to immune-triggered inflammation and hypercoagulability, as well as microbial changes in host physiology (1076). Indeed, COVID-19 patients with lower levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol are more susceptible to hospitalization, while low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol was associated with higher inflammation (77). Critically ill patients with COVID-19 showed significantly lower levels of vitamin A than non-critical ones, and this was associated with higher inflammation (78). Vitamin A levels below 0.2 mg/L were significantly associated with the developments of ARDS and higher mortality (78). Vitamin D, a well-known regulator of phosphate and calcium metabolism with immunomodulatory functions, seems to not influence mortality or hospital length of stay in COVID-19 (7980). Finally, thyroid hormones showed marked association with disease severity and mortality, suggesting the importance of early assessment of thyroid function – and, when necessary, initiation of treatment – in hospitalized COVID-19 patients (81).

Neurologic Involvement

Pathogenetic mechanisms of SARS-CoV-2 neurologic manifestations include possible spreading of the virus across the blood-brain barrier via leukocyte migration or sluggish movement of blood within the microcirculation, thus binding to endothelial cells. Cells which may present ACE2 receptors, including neurons, astrocytes, and oligodendrocytes, can all be affected directly by viral entry and activate the local immune response. As a consequence of neuronal involvement, several biomarkers of neuroinflammation and damage can be detected (82).

Although COVID-19 rarely affects the brain as a primary manifestation, neurological complications are common in this patient population (8284). Patients with neurological complications, compared to those without, may experience longer hospital stays, and the duration of mechanical ventilation can be associated with the risk of developing new neurological complications (8485). CT and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are considered the gold standard for detecting cerebral derangements, although the use of methods which involve exposure to ionizing radiation in non-primarily brain-injured patients can only be justified in case of high suspicion of neurological complications (86). The use of multimodal neuromonitoring has received increasing attention as a means of identifying patients at higher risk of brain derangement because of its low cost, speed, safety, and ready availability. However, the use of neuromonitoring tools is still mainly limited to specific settings (i.e., ICU) and patient populations (i.e., those with primary brain injury) (84).

Other than imaging, blood biomarkers can detect brain damage and predict prognosis efficiently. Blood biomarkers for the study of brain derangements include glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), neurofilament light polypeptide (NfL), tau, S100B calcium binding protein, NSE, and inflammatory markers. Increased GFAP staining has been found in postmortem analysis of brain tissue from patients with COVID-19 (87), and NfL was significantly associated with COVID-19 status (88). Another study reported that GFAP was increased in both moderate and severe COVID-19 cases, whereas serum NfL was increased only in severe cases compared to controls (89). However, another study reported that serum NfL, although elevated across patients hospitalized with COVID-19, was not associated with neurological manifestations. Additionally, the usual close correlation between cerebrospinal fluid and serum NfL was not found, suggesting serum NfL elevation in the non-neurological patients may reflect peripheral nerve damage in response to severe illness (90). In COVID-19 patients with altered NfL and GFAP, values of these markers had normalized in all individuals at 6-month follow-up, suggesting that post-COVID-19 neurological sequelae may be not accompanied by ongoing brain injury (91). Inflammatory and coagulatory markers like D-dimer, LDH, erythrocyte sedimentation rate (ESR), and CRP were independently associated with the occurrence of ischemic stroke in COVID-19 (9293), while higher age, diabetes mellitus, and hypertension were found not to be significant predictors of stroke in this population, despite being known predictors of non-COVID-19 stroke (93). Levels of lymphocytes, procalcitonin, and creatinine were higher in COVID-19 stroke patients (94). S100B was higher in patients with mild and severe COVID-19 than in healthy controls, and may be a marker of disease severity (95). Antiphospholipid antibodies (i.e., anti-phosphatidylserine/prothrombin) were higher in COVID-19 patients, particularly those with neurological manifestations, than in controls. In contrast, anticardiolipin antibodies were not associated with neurologic involvement in COVID-19 (96).

Kidney and Liver

COVID-19 may cause kidney and liver injury by either direct infection of cells, via host immune clearance and immune tolerance disorders, endothelium-associated vasculitis, thrombus formation, metabolism and glucose disorder, or tissue hypoxia. As a consequence, biomarkers of endothelial, renal, hepatic, vascular, or hypoxic damage can help in the detection of new organ involvement and assist in determining prognosis (97).

As part of multiorgan involvement in COVID-19, kidney function might be altered directly by viral invasion or may occur secondary to multiple organ failure due to systemic inflammation or aggressive therapies (98). Around 25% of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were reported to develop acute kidney injury, including low molecular weight proteinuria, Fanconi syndrome, and tubular injury (98). Moreover, regional inflammation, endothelial injury, and microthrombi have been identified as major causative factors of renal pathology in COVID-19. This is also sustained by the fact that anti-inflammatory drugs, such as steroids, play a key role in limiting renal disease progression (98). Classic diagnostic biomarkers of kidney damage include creatinine, neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin (NGAL), cystatin C, kidney injury molecule-1 (KIM-1), blood and urinary urea nitrogen, and urinary proteins (99100).

Novel urinary biomarkers have been proposed in COVID-19, including urine 11-dehydro-thromboxane B2, 8-hydroxy-2′-deoxyguanosine, and liver-type fatty acid binding protein (L-FABP) levels, all of which were higher in this patient cohort at the time of hospitalization (101). N-acetyl-β-D-glucosaminidase, β2-microglobulin, α1-microglobulin, and L-FABP, which are all markers of tubular injury, were significantly associated with inflammation, as were IL-6 levels (102). Indeed, another observational study confirmed the association between pro-inflammatory cytokines, urinary cytokines, and urinary kidney injury markers (103). Procalcitonin was associated with acute kidney injury in COVID-19, and a score including simple and easily accessible variables such as procalcitonin, arterial saturation of oxygen, and blood urea nitrogen was shown to be predictive of acute kidney injury (104).

Altered serum creatinine levels with decreased kidney function at admission and up to 24 hours thereafter were significantly associated with acute kidney injury and in-hospital mortality (105). Additionally, urine blood >0.03 mg/dL and urine specific gravity >1.026 were associated with acute kidney injury, ICU admission, and higher mortality (106).

Abnormal liver and hepatobiliary function have been also identified in COVID-19 (107). A systematic review and meta-analysis showed a cumulative prevalence of liver disease of 24% in COVID-19, with possible alterations in albuminemia, liver enzymes, and total bilirubin (108). Recent findings showed that some liver and renal biomarkers, including albumin, direct bilirubin, neutrophil and lymphocyte counts, and mean corpuscular hemoglobin, are associated with risk of developing severe COVID-19 (107). Moreover, the presence of pre-existing liver fibrosis with silent liver injury significantly influenced mortality in COVID-19 (109)

Future Perspectives: Metabolomic and Proteomic Biomarkers and Machine Learning Models

Given the significant immune dysregulation of COVID-19 patients, the interplay between metabolism and immunity may play a pivotal role in the disease course (110). Additionally, oxygen deprivation may affect homeostasis in tissues and organs such as the lung, brain, kidney, and liver. The modulation of oxygen homeostasis and response to hypoxia is mainly mediated by glycolysis and the lactate cycle. This has increased research interest in proteomic and metabolomic methods to investigate pathways linked to energy production and amino acid metabolism in patients with SARS-CoV-2 infections (110). Metabolomic analyses in COVID-19 patients with and without pulmonary fibrosis revealed that pathways including the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR), D-arginine and D-ornithine metabolism, inflammatory tryptophan metabolic pathway (TRP), and alpha-linolenic acid metabolism were significantly increased in fibrotic lungs, thus suggesting that PPAR signaling is one of the main pathways involved in the formation and development of lung fibrosis in COVID-19 (9). A proteomic and metabolomic analysis identified hypoxanthine and betaine as predictors of ICU stay, and early ICU admission, elevated creatinine, and D-dimer were found to be associated with these pathways (8). Longer duration of invasive mechanical ventilation was associated with the kynurenine and p-cresol sulfate pathways (8). Several markers of metabolic function identified via metabolomic analysis were associated with in-hospital mortality, including cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP), which plays a role in SARS-CoV2 endocytosis in the initial phase of the disease (10). Another major signature of the serum metabolome in COVID-19 was lactic acid, as well as spermidine and spermine. Many other metabolites were commonly increased, including glutamate, aspartate, phenylalanine, β-alanine, ornithine, arachidonic acid, choline, and xanthine (110). Recent machine learning models have been developed to support decision making and risk stratification in COVID-19. Most predictive models rely on demographic and clinical variables. However, biomarkers have recently shown good correlation with severity of disease and mortality in COVID-19 modeling (111). One example was a large study of 2,895 consecutive patients with COVID-19 in whom three biomarkers measured at admission were found to reflect pathobiological axes of myocardial injury, altered coagulation, and inflammation. The machine learning model concluded that patients with low levels of these biomarkers were at lower risk of critical disease and in-hospital mortality (112). In conclusion, the alterations found in the serum metabolome of patients with COVID-19 may reflect a more complex systemic derangement affecting carbon and nitrogen liver metabolism, but further research is needed to completely understand the impact of these alterations on routine clinical practice. Machine learning models can be promising in risk stratification in COVID-19. However, further investigations are needed to develop mathematical models that can help clinicians select the right parameters and interpret results.


Laboratory biomarkers have shown significant diagnostic and prognostic value for risk stratification in COVID-19. Furthermore, novel analytic strategies including metabolomics and proteomics offer interesting insights for early detection of patients at higher risk of severe disease and death. However, their limited availability restricts their widespread clinical use. Further investigations are warranted to identify a core set of laboratory biomarkers which can be used in daily clinical practice to easily predict prognosis and outcome in hospitalized patients with severe COVID-19.

Author Contributions

DB and ML-P: review, design, writing, editing. HC-F-N and PP: editing. PR: review, design, editing, senior contribution. All authors contributed to the article and approved the submitted version.


This work was supported by the Brazilian Council for Scientific and Technological Development (COVID-19-CNPq; 401700/2020-8 and 403485/2020-7); Rio de Janeiro State Research Foundation (COVID-19-FAPERJ; E-26/210.181/2020); and Funding Authority for Studies and Projects (01200008.00), Brazil.

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

Publisher’s Note

All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article, or claim that may be made by its manufacturer, is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.

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The authors express their gratitude to Mrs. Moira Elizabeth Schottler and Mr Filippe Vasconcellos for their assistance in editing the paper.

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ACE2, angiotensin receptor 2; ARDS, acute respiratory distress syndrome; AST, aspartate transaminase; BNP, brain natriuretic peptide; cAMP, cyclic adenosine monophosphate; CD, cluster differentiation; CK, creatine kinase; COVID-19, coronavirus disease 2019; CRP, C-reactive protein; CT, computed tomography; ECG, electrocardiography; ESR, erythrocyte sedimentation rate; GFAP, glial fibrillary acidic protein; HDL, high-density lipoprotein; ICU, intensive care unit; IL, interleukin; KIM, kidney injury molecule; L-FABP, liver-type fatty acid binding protein; LDH, lactate dehydrogenase; LDL, low-density lipoprotein; MR-proADM, mid-regional pro-adrenomedullin; MRI, magnetic resonance imaging; NfL, neurofilament light polypeptide; NGAL, neutrophil gelatinase-associated lipocalin; NK, natural killer; NP, natriuretic peptides; NSE, neuron-specific enolase; NT-proBNP, N-terminal pro-hormone BNP; PPAR, peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor; RASS, renin-angiotensin- aldosterone system; SARS-CoV-2, severe acute respiratory syndrome-coronavirus-2; ssRNA, single-stranded ribonucleic acid; sTNFRI, soluble TNF receptor I; sVCAM, soluble vascular cell adhesion molecule; TMPRSS2, transmembrane serine protease 2; TNF, tumor necrosis factor; TREM, triggering receptor expressed on myeloid cell; TRP, tryptophan metabolic pathway; TTE, transthoracic electrocardiography; vWF, von Willebrand Factor.

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Acute Mesenteric Ischemia in COVID-19 Patients

Authors: Dragos Serban 1,2,*† , Laura Carina Tribus 3,4,†, Geta Vancea 1,5,† , Anca Pantea Stoian, Ana Maria Dascalu 1,* Andra Iulia Suceveanu 6Ciprian Tanasescu 7,8, Andreea Cristina Costea 9 Mihail Silviu Tudosie 1, Corneliu Tudor 2, Gabriel Andrei Gangura 1,10, Lucian Duta 2 and Daniel Ovidiu Costea 6,11,


Acute mesenteric ischemia is a rare but extremely severe complication of SARS-CoV-2 infection. The present review aims to document the clinical, laboratory, and imaging findings, management, and outcomes of acute intestinal ischemia in COVID-19 patients. A comprehensive search was performed on PubMed and Web of Science with the terms “COVID-19” and “bowel ischemia” OR “intestinal ischemia” OR “mesenteric ischemia” OR “mesenteric thrombosis”. After duplication removal, a total of 36 articles were included, reporting data on a total of 89 patients, 63 being hospitalized at the moment of onset. Elevated D-dimers, leukocytosis, and C reactive protein (CRP) were present in most reported cases, and a contrast-enhanced CT exam confirms the vascular thromboembolism and offers important information about the bowel viability. There are distinct features of bowel ischemia in non-hospitalized vs. hospitalized COVID-19 patients, suggesting different pathological pathways. In ICU patients, the most frequently affected was the large bowel alone (56%) or in association with the small bowel (24%), with microvascular thrombosis. Surgery was necessary in 95.4% of cases. In the non-hospitalized group, the small bowel was involved in 80%, with splanchnic veins or arteries thromboembolism, and a favorable response to conservative anticoagulant therapy was reported in 38.4%. Mortality was 54.4% in the hospitalized group and 21.7% in the non-hospitalized group (p < 0.0001). Age over 60 years (p = 0.043) and the need for surgery (p = 0.019) were associated with the worst outcome. Understanding the mechanisms involved and risk factors may help adjust the thromboprophylaxis and fluid management in COVID-19 patients.

1. Introduction Acute mesenteric ischemia (AMI) is a major abdominal emergency, characterized by a sudden decrease in the blood flow to the small bowel, resulting in ischemic lesions of the intestinal loops, necrosis, and if left untreated, death by peritonitis and septic shock. In nonCOVID patients, the etiology may be mesenteric arterial embolism (in 50%), mesenteric arterial thrombosis (15–25%), venous thrombosis (5–15%), or less frequent, from nonocclusive causes associated with low blood flow [1]. Several systemic conditions, such as arterial hypertension, atrial fibrillation, atherosclerosis, heart failure, or valve disease are risk factors for AMI. Portal vein thrombosis and mesenteric vein thrombosis can be seen with celiac disease [2], appendicitis [3], pancreatitis [4], and, in particular, liver cirrhosis and hepatocellular cancer [5]. Acute intestinal ischemia is a rare manifestation during COVID-19 disease, but a correct estimation of its incidence is challenging due to sporadic reports, differences in patients’ selection among previously published studies, and also limitations in diagnosis related to the strict COVID-19 regulations for disease control and difficulties in performing imagistic investigations in the patients in intensive care units. COVID-19 is known to cause significant alteration of coagulation, causing thromboembolic acute events, of which the most documented were pulmonary embolism, acute myocardial infarction, and lower limb ischemia [6]. Gastrointestinal features in COVID-19 disease are relatively frequently reported, varying from less than 10% in early studies from China [7,8] to 30–60%, in other reports [9,10]. In an extensive study on 1992 hospitalized patients for COVID-19 pneumonia from 36 centers, Elmunzer et al. [7] found that the most frequent clinical signs reported were mild and self-limited in up to 74% of cases, consisting of diarrhea (34%), nausea (27%), vomiting (16%), and abdominal pain (11%). However, severe cases were also reported, requiring emergency surgery for acute bowel ischemia or perforation [5,8]. The pathophysiology of the digestive features in COVID-19 patients involves both ischemic and non-ischemic mechanisms. ACE2 receptors are present at the level of the intestinal wall, and enterocytes may be directly infected by SARS-CoV-2. The virus was evidenced in feces and enteral walls in infected subjects [4,11–13]. In a study by Xu et al., rectal swabs were positive in 8 of 10 pediatric patients, even after the nasopharyngeal swabs became negative [14]. However, the significance of fecal elimination of viral ARN is still not fully understood in the transmission chain of the SARS-CoV-2 infection. On the other hand, disturbance of lung-gut axis, prolonged hospitalization in ICU, and the pro coagulation state induced by SARS-CoV-2 endothelial damage was incriminated for bowel ischemia, resulting in intestinal necrosis and perforation [8,9,15]. Early recognition and treatment of gastrointestinal ischemia are extremely important, but it is often challenging in hospitalized COVID-19 patients with severe illness. The present review aims to document the risk factors, clinical, imagistic, and laboratory findings, management, and outcomes of acute intestinal ischemic complications in COVID-19 patients. 2. Materials and Methods A comprehensive search was performed on PubMed and Web of Science with the terms “COVID-19” AND (“bowel ischemia” OR “intestinal ischemia” OR “mesenteric ischemia” OR “mesenteric thrombosis”). All original papers and case reports, in the English language, for which full text could be obtained, published until November 2021, were included in the review. Meeting abstracts, commentaries, and book chapters were excluded. A hand search was performed in the references of the relevant reviews on the topic. 2.1. Data Extraction and Analysis The review is not registered in PROSPERO. A PRISMA flowchart was employed to screen papers for eligibility (Figure 1) and a PRISMA checklist is presented as a Supple- J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 3 of 22 mentary File S1. A data extraction sheet was independently completed by two researchers, with strict adherence to PRISMA guidelines. J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 3 2.1. Data Extraction and Analysis The review is not registered in PROSPERO. A PRISMA flowchart was employedscreen papers for eligibility (Figure 1) and a PRISMA checklist is presented as a Supmentary File S1. A data extraction sheet was independently completed by two researchwith strict adherence to PRISMA guidelines. Figure 1. PRISMA 2020 flowchart for the studies included in the review. The relevant data abstracted from these studies are presented in Tables 1–3. COV19 diagnosis was made by PCR assay in all cases. All patients reported with COVIDdisease and mesenteric ischemia were documented in terms of age, sex, comorbidittime from SARS-CoV-2 infection diagnosis, presentation, investigations, treatment, outcome. A statistical analysis of the differences between acute intestinal ischemia in pviously non-hospitalized vs. previously hospitalized patients was performed. The pottial risk factors for an adverse vital prognosis were analyzed using SciStat® softw( (accessed on 25 November 2021)). Papers that did not provide sufficient data regarding evaluation at admission, domentation of SARS-CoV-2 infection, or treatment were excluded. Patients suffering frother conditions that could potentially complicate intestinal ischemia, such as liver cirrsis, hepatocellular carcinoma, intraabdominal infection (appendicitis, diverticulitis), pcreatitis, and celiac disease were excluded. Any disagreement was solved by discussioFigure 1. PRISMA 2020 flowchart for the studies included in the review. The relevant data abstracted from these studies are presented in Tables 1–3. COVID-19 diagnosis was made by PCR assay in all cases. All patients reported with COVID-19 disease and mesenteric ischemia were documented in terms of age, sex, comorbidities, time from SARS-CoV-2 infection diagnosis, presentation, investigations, treatment, and outcome. A statistical analysis of the differences between acute intestinal ischemia in previously nonhospitalized vs. previously hospitalized patients was performed. The potential risk factors for an adverse vital prognosis were analyzed using SciStat® software ( (accessed on 25 November 2021)). Papers that did not provide sufficient data regarding evaluation at admission, documentation of SARS-CoV-2 infection, or treatment were excluded. Patients suffering from other conditions that could potentially complicate intestinal ischemia, such as liver cirrhosis, hepatocellular carcinoma, intraabdominal infection (appendicitis, diverticulitis), pancreatitis, and celiac disease were excluded. Any disagreement was solved by discussion. J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 4 of 22 Table 1. Patients with intestinal ischemia in retrospective studies on hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Study No of Patients with Gastrointestinal Ischemia (Total No of COVID-19 Patients in ICU) Sex (M; F) Age (Mean) BMI Time from Admission to Onset (Days) Abdominal CT Signs Intraoperative/Endoscopic Findings Treatment Outcomes Kaafarani HMA [16] 5 (141); 3.8% 1;3 62.5 32.1 51.5 (18–104) days NA Cecum-1—patchy necrosis Cecum_ileon-1 Small bowel-3; yellow discoloration on the antimesenteric side of the small bowel; 1 case + liver necrosis Surgical resection NA Kraft M [17] 4 (190); 2.1% NA NA NA NA NA Bowel ischemia + perforation (2) Bowel ischemia + perforation (1) MAT+massive bowel ischemia (1) Right hemicolectomy (2) Transverse colectomy (1) Conservative, not fit for surgery Recovery (3) Death (1) Yang C [18] 20 (190 in ICU; 582 in total); 10.5% 15:5 69 31.2 26.5 (17–42) Distension Wall thickness Pneumatosis intestinalis Perforation SMA or celiac thrombosis no info Right hemicolectomy 7(35%) Sub/total colectomy12 (60%) Ileocecal resection 1(5%) Recovery (11) Death (9) Hwabejire J [19] 20 13:7 58.7 32.5 13 (1–31) Pneumatosis intestinalis 42% Portal venous gas (33%) Mesenteric vessel patency 92% large bowel ischemia (8) small bowel ischemia (4) both (8) yellow discoloration of the ischemic bowel resection of the ischemic segment abdomen left open + second look (14) Recovery (10) Death (10) O’Shea A [20] 4 (142); 2.8% NA NA NA NA bowel ischemia, portal vein gas, colic pneumatosis NA NA NA Qayed E [21] 2 (878); 0.22% NA NA NA NA NA diffuse colonic ischemia (1) Small + large bowel ischemia and pneumatosis (1) Total colectomy (1) Extensive resection (1) Recovery (1) Death (1) NA: not acknowledged; MAT: mesenteric artery thrombosis; SMA: superior mesenteric artery. J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 5 of 22 Table 2. Case reports and case series presenting gastrointestinal ischemia in hospitalized COVID-19 patients under anticoagulant medication. Article Sex Age Comorbidities Time from COVID-19 Diagnosis; Time from Admission (Days) ICU; Type of Ventilation Clinical Signs at Presentation Leukocytes (/mm3 ) CRP (mg/L) Lactat mmol/L Ferritin (ng/mL) LDH (U/L) Thrombocytes (/mm3) D-Dimers (ng/mL) Abdominal CT Signs Treatment Outcome Azouz E [22] M 56 none 1; 2 (hospitalized for acute ischemic stroke) No info abdominal pain and vomiting No info – – – – – – Multiple arterial thromboembolic complications: AMS, right middle cerebral artery, a free-floating clot in the aortic arch Anticoagulation (no details), endovascular thrombectomy Laparotomy + resection of necrotic small bowel loops No info Al Mahruqi G [23] M 51 none 26; 24 yes, intubated Fever, metabolic acidosis, required inotropes 30,000 – 7 687 – – 2.5 Non-occlusive AMI Hypoperfused small bowel, permeable aorta, SMA, IMA + deep lower limb thrombosis enoxaparin 40 mg/day from admission; surgery refused by family death Ucpinar BA [24] F 82 Atrial fibrillation, hypertension, chronic kidney disease 3; 3 no – 14,800 196 5.1 – – – 1600 SMA thrombosis; distended small bowel, with diffuse submucosal pneumatosis portomesenteric gas fluid resuscitation; continued ceftriaxone, enoxaparin 0.4cc twice daily; not operable due to fulminant evolution Death Karna ST [25] F 61 DM, hypertension 4; 4 Yes, HFNO diffuse abdominal pain with distention 21,400 421.6 1.4 – – 464,000 No thrombosis of the distal SMA with dilated jejunoileal loops and normal enhancing bowel wall. Iv heparin 5000 ui, followed by 1000 ui, Ecospin and clopidogrel Laparotomy after 10 days with segmental enterectomy of the necrotic bowel Death by septic shock and acute renal failure Singh B [26] F 82 Hypertension, T2DM 32; 18 Yes, Ventilator support severe diffuse abdominal distension and tenderness 22,800 308 2.5 136 333 146,000 1.3 SMA—colic arteries thrombosis pneumatosis intestinalis affecting the ascending colon and cecum laparotomy, ischemic colon resection, ileostomy; heparin in therapeutic doses preand post-surgery slow recovery J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 6 of 22 Table 2. Cont. Article Sex Age Comorbidities Time from COVID-19 Diagnosis; Time from Admission (Days) ICU; Type of Ventilation Clinical Signs at Presentation Leukocytes (/mm3 ) CRP (mg/L) Lactat mmol/L Ferritin (ng/mL) LDH (U/L) Thrombocytes (/mm3) D-Dimers (ng/mL) Abdominal CT Signs Treatment Outcome Nakatsutmi K [27] F 67 DM, diabetic nephropathy requiring dialysis, angina, postresection gastric cancer 16; 12 ICU, intubation hemodynamic deterioration, abdominal distension 15,100 32.14 – – – – 26.51 edematous transverse colon; abdominal vessels with sclerotic changes laparotomy, which revealed vascular micro thrombosis of transverse colon—right segment resection of the ischemic colonic segment, ABTHERA management, second look, and closure of the abdomen after 24 h death Dinoto E [28] F 84 DM, hypertension, renal failure 2; 2 no Acute abdominal pain and distension; 18,000 32.47 – – 431 – 6937 SMA origin stenosis and occlusion at 2 cm from the origin, absence of bowel enhancement Endovascular thrombectomy of SMA; surgical transfemoral thrombectomy and distal superficial femoral artery stenting Death due to respiratory failure Kiwango F [29] F 60 DM, hypertension 12; 3 no Sudden onset abdominal pain 7700 – – – – – 23.8 Not performed Not performed due to rapid oxygen desaturation Massive bowel acute ischemia death J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 7 of 22 Table 3. Case reports and case series presenting gastrointestinal ischemia in non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Article Sex Age Comorbidities Time from COVID-19 Diagnosis (Days) Clinical Signs at Presentation Leukocyte Count (/mm3 ) CRP (mg/L) Lactate mmol/L Ferritin (ng/mL) LDH (U/L) Thrombocytes (/mm3 ) D-Dimers (ng/mL) Abdominal CT Signs Treatment Outcome Sevella, P [30] M 44 none 10 Acute abdominal pain constipation, vomiting 23,400 – – – 1097 360,000 1590 Viable jejunum, ischemic bowel, peritoneal thickening with fat stranding; free fluid in the peritoneal cavity LMWH 60 mg daily Piperacillin 4g/day Tazobactam 500 mg/day Extensive small bowel + right colon resection death Nasseh S [31] M 68 no info First diagnosis epigastric pain and diarrhea for 4 days 17,660 125 – – – – 6876 terminal segment of the ileocolic artery thrombosis; thickening of the right colon wall and the last 30 cm of the small bowl unfractionated heparin laparoscopy -no bowel resection needed recovery Aleman W [32] M 44 none 20 severe abdominopelvic pain 36,870 – – 456.23 – 574,000 263.87 absence of flow at SMV, splenic, portal vein; Small bowel loop dilatation and mesenteric fat edema enoxaparin and pain control medication 6 days, then switched to warfarin 6 months recovery Jeilani M [33] M 68 Alzheimer disease, COPD 9 Sharp abdominal pain +distension 12,440 307 – – – 318,000 897 a central venous filling defect within the portal vein extending to SMV; no bowel wall changes LMWH, 3 months recovery Randhawa J [34] F 62 none First diagnosis right upper quadrant pain and loss of appetite for 14 days Normal limits – – – 346 – – large thrombus involving the SMV, the main portal vein with extension into its branches Fondaparinux 2.5. mg 5 days, then warfarin 4 mg (adjusted by INR), 6 months recovery Cheung S [35] M 55 none 12 (discharged for 7 days) Nausea, vomiting and worsening generalized abdominal pain with guarding 12,446 – 0.68 – – – – low-density clot, 1.6 cm in length, causing high-grade narrowing of the proximal SMA continuous heparin infusion continued 8 h postoperative, Laparotomy with SMA thromboembolectomy and enterectomy (small bowel) recovery J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 8 of 22 Table 3. Cont. Article Sex Age Comorbidities Time from COVID-19 Diagnosis (Days) Clinical Signs at Presentation Leukocyte Count (/mm3 ) CRP (mg/L) Lactate mmol/L Ferritin (ng/mL) LDH (U/L) Thrombocytes (/mm3 ) D-Dimers (ng/mL) Abdominal CT Signs Treatment Outcome Beccara L [36] M 52 none 22 (5 days after discharge and cessation prophylactic LWMH) vomiting and abdominal pain, tenderness in epigastrium and mesogastrium 30,000 222 – – – – – arterial thrombosis of vessels efferent of the SMA with bowel distension Enterectomy (small bowel) LMWH plus aspirin 100 mg/day at discharge recovery Vulliamy P [37] M 75 none 14 abdominal pain and vomiting for 2 days 18,100 3.2 – – – 497,000 320 intraluminal thrombus was present in the descending thoracic aorta with embolic occlusion of SMA Catheter-directed thrombolysis, enterectomy (small bowel) recovery De Barry O [38] F 79 none First diagnosis Epigastric pain, diarrhea, fever for 8 days, acute dyspnea 12600 125 5.36 – – – – SMV, portal vein, SMA, and jejunal artery thrombosis Distended loops, free fluid anticoagulation Resection of affected colon+ ileum, SMA thrombolysis, thrombectomy death Romero MCV [39] M 73 smoker, DM, hypertension 14 severe abdominal pain, nausea. fecal emesis, peritoneal irritation 18,000 – – – – 120,000 >5000 RX: distention of intestinal loops, inter-loop edema, intestinal pneumatosis enoxaparin (60 mg/0.6 mL), antibiotics (no info) enterectomy, anastomotic fistula, reintervention death Posada Arango [40] M F F 62 22 65 None Appendectomy 7 days before left nephrectomy, 5 3 15 colicative abdominal pain at food intake; unsystematized gastrointestinal symptoms; abdominal pain in the upper hemiabdomen 20,100 – – – – – – – – 1536 – – 534 – – – – – – – – Case 1: thrombus in distal SMA and its branches, intestinal loops dilatation, hydroaerical levels, free fluid thrombosis of SMV Case 2: SMV thrombosis and adiacent fat edema Case 3: thrombi in the left jejunal artery branch with infarction of the corresponding jejunal loops Case 1: Laparotomy: extensive jejunum + ileum ischemia; surgery could not be performed Case 2: Anticoagulation analgesic and antibiotics Case 3: segmental enterectomy Case 1: death Case 2: recovery Case 3: recovery J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 9 of 22 Table 3. Cont. Article Sex Age Comorbidities Time from COVID-19 Diagnosis (Days) Clinical Signs at Presentation Leukocyte Count (/mm3 ) CRP (mg/L) Lactate mmol/L Ferritin (ng/mL) LDH (U/L) Thrombocytes (/mm3 ) D-Dimers (ng/mL) Abdominal CT Signs Treatment Outcome Pang JHQ [41] M 30 none First diagnosis colicky abdominal pain, vomiting – – – – – – 20 SMV thrombosis with diffuse mural thickening and fat stranding of multiple jejunal loops conservative, anticoagulation with LMWH 1mg/kc, twice daily, 3 months; readmitted and operated for congenital adherence causing small bowel obstruction recovery Lari E [42] M 38 none First diagnosis abdominal pain, nausea, intractable vomiting, and shortness of breath Mild leukocytosis – 2.2 – – – 2100 extensive thrombosis of the portal, splenic, superior, and inferior mesenteric veins + mild bowel ischemia Anticoagulation, resection of the affected bowel loop No info Carmo Filho A [43] M 33 Obesity (BMI: 33), other not reported 7 severe low back pain radiating to the hypogastric region – 58.2 – 1570 – – 879 enlarged inferior mesenteric vein not filled by contrast associated with infiltration of the adjacent adipose planes enoxaparin 5 days, followed by long term oral warfarin recovery Hanif M [44] F 20 none 8 abdominal pain and abdominal distension 15,900 62 – 1435.3 825 633,000 2340 not performed evidence of SMA thrombosis; enterectomy with exteriorization of both ends recovery Amaravathi U [45] M 45 none 5 Acute epigastric and periumbilical pain – Normal value 1.3 324.3 – – 5.3 SMA and SMV thrombus i.v. heparin; Laparotomy with SMA thrombectomy; 48 h Second look: resection of the gangrenous bowel segment No info Al Mahruqi G [23] M 51 none 4 generalized abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting 16,000 – – 619 – – 10 SMA thrombosis and non-enhancing proximal ileal loops consistent with small bowel ischemia unfractionated heparin, thrombectomy + repeated resections of the ischemic bowel at relook (jejunum+ileon+cecum) Case 2: recovery J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 10 of 22 Table 3. Cont. Article Sex Age Comorbidities Time from COVID-19 Diagnosis (Days) Clinical Signs at Presentation Leukocyte Count (/mm3 ) CRP (mg/L) Lactate mmol/L Ferritin (ng/mL) LDH (U/L) Thrombocytes (/mm3 ) D-Dimers (ng/mL) Abdominal CT Signs Treatment Outcome Goodfellow M [46] F 36 RYGB, depression, asthma 6 epigastric pain, irradiating back, nausea 9650 1.2 0.7 – – – – abrupt cut-off of the SMV in the proximal portion; diffuse infiltration of the mesentery, wall thickening of small bowel IV heparin infusion, followed by 18,000 UI delteparin after 72 h recovery Abeysekera KW [26] M 42 Hepatitis B 14 right hypochondrial pain, progressively increasing for 9 days – – – – – – – enhancement of the entire length of the portal vein and a smaller thrombus in the mid-superior mesenteric vein, mural edema of the distal duodenum, distal small bowel, and descending colon factor Xa inhibitor apixaban 5 mg ×2/day, 6 months – recovery RodriguezNakamura RM [27] M F 45 42 -vitiligo -obesity 14 severe mesogastric pain, nausea, diaphoresis 16,400 18,800 367 239 – – 970 – – – 685,000 – 1450 14,407 Case 1: SMI of thrombotic etiology with partial rechanneling through the middle colic artery, and hypoxic-ischemic changes in the distal ileum and the cecum Case 2: thrombosis of the portal and mesenteric veins and an abdominopelvic collection in the mesentery with gas Case 1: resection with entero-enteral anastomosis; rivaroxaban 10 mg/day, 6 months Case 2: Loop resection, entero-enteral manual anastomosis, partial omentectomy, and cavity wash (fecal peritonitis) Case 1: Recovery Case 2: death Plotz B [47] F 27 SLE with ITP First diagnosis acute onset nausea, vomiting, and non-bloody diarrhea – – – – – – 5446 diffuse small bowel edema enoxaparin, long term apixaban at discharge recovery J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 11 of 22 Table 3. Cont. Article Sex Age Comorbidities Time from COVID-19 Diagnosis (Days) Clinical Signs at Presentation Leukocyte Count (/mm3 ) CRP (mg/L) Lactate mmol/L Ferritin (ng/mL) LDH (U/L) Thrombocytes (/mm3 ) D-Dimers (ng/mL) Abdominal CT Signs Treatment Outcome Chiu CY [48] F 49 Hypertension, DM, chronic kidney disease 28 diffuse abdominal pain melena and hematemesis – – – – – – 12,444 distended proximal jejunum with mural thickening laparotomy, proximal jejunum resection no info Farina D [49] M 70 no info 3 abdominal pain, nausea 15,300 149 – – – – – acute small bowel hypoperfusion, SMA thromboembolism not operable due to general condition Death SMA: superior mesenteric artery; SMV: superior mesenteric vein; DM: diabetes mellitus; T2DM: type 2 diabetes mellitus; AMI: acute mesenteric ischemia; IMV: inferior mesenteric vein; RYGB: Roux-en-Y gastric bypass (bariatric surgery). J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 12 of 22 2.2. Risk of Bias The studies analyzed in the present review were comparable in terms of patient selection, methodology, therapeutic approach, and the report of final outcome. However, there were differences in the reported clinical and laboratory data. The sample size was small, most of them being case reports or case series, which may be a significant source of bias. Therefore, studies were compared only qualitatively. 3. Results After duplication removal, a total of 36 articles were included in the review, reporting data on a total of 89 patients. Among these, we identified 6 retrospective studies [16–21], documenting intestinal ischemia in 55 patients admitted to intensive care units (ICU) with COVID-19 pneumonia for whom surgical consult was necessary (Table 1). We also identified 30 case reports or case series [22–51] presenting 34 cases of acute bowel ischemia in patients positive for SARS-CoV-2 infection in different clinical settings. 8 cases were previously hospitalized for COVID-19 pneumonia and under anticoagulant medication (Table 2). In 26 cases, the acute ischemic event appeared as the first symptom of COVID-19 disease, or in mild forms treated at home, or after discharge for COVID -19 pneumonia and cessation of the anticoagulant medication (Table 3). 3.1. Risk Factors of Intestinal Ischemia in COVID-19 Patients Out of a total of 89 patients included in the review, 63 (70.7%) were hospitalized for severe forms of COVID-19 pneumonia at the moment of onset. These patients were receiving anticoagulant medication when reported, consisting of low molecular weight heparin (LMWH) at prophylactic doses. The incidence of acute intestinal ischemia in ICU patients with COVID-19 varied widely between 0.22–10.5% (Table 1). In a study by O’Shea et al. [20], 26% of hospitalized patients for COVID-19 pneumonia who underwent imagistic examination, presented results positive for coagulopathy, and in 22% of these cases, the thromboembolic events were with multiple locations. The mean age was 56.9 years. We observed a significantly lower age in non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients presenting with acute intestinal ischemia when compared to the previously hospitalized group (p < 0.0001). There is a slight male to female predominance (M:F = 1:68). Obesity might be considered a possible risk factor, with a reported mean BMI of 31.2–32.5 in hospitalized patients [16,18,19]. However, this association should be regarded with caution, since obesity is also a risk factor for severe forms of COVID-19. Prolonged stay in intensive care, intubation, and the need for vasopressor medication was associated with increased risk of acute bowel ischemia [8,18,19]. Diabetes mellitus and hypertension were the most frequent comorbidities encountered in case reports (8 in 34 patients, 23%), and 7 out of 8 patients presented both (Table 4). There was no information regarding the comorbidities in the retrospective studies included in the review. 3.2. Clinical Features in COVID-19 Patients with Acute Mesenteric Ischemia Abdominal pain, out of proportion to physical findings, is a hallmark of portomesenteric thrombosis, typically associated with fever and leukocytosis [4]. Abdominal pain was encountered in all cases, either generalized from the beginning, of high intensity, or firstly localized in the epigastrium or the mezogastric area. In cases of portal vein thrombosis, the initial location may be in the right hypochondrium, mimicking biliary colic [26,34]. Fever is less useful in COVID-19 infected patients, taking into consideration that fever is a general sign of infection, and on the other hand, these patients might be already under antipyretic medication. J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 13 of 22 Table 4. Demographic data of the patients included in the review. Nr. of Patients 89 M 48 (61.5% *) F 30 (38.5% *) NA 11 The first sign of COVID-19 6 (6.7%) Home treated 17 (19.1%) Hospitalized • ICU 63 (70.7%) 58 (92% of hospitalized patients) Discharged 3 (3.3%) Time from diagnosis of COVID-19 infection • Non-Hospitalized • Hospitalized (*when mentioned) 8.7 ± 7.4 (1–28 days) 9.6 ± 8.3 (1–26 days) Time from admission in hospitalized patients 1–104 days Age (mean) • Hospitalized • Non-hospitalized 59.3 ± 12.7 years 62 ± 9.6 years. (p < 0.0001) 52.8 ± 16.4 years. BMI 31.2–32.5 Comorbidities • Hypertension • DM • smokers • Atrial fibrillation • COPD • Cirrhosis • RYGB • Vitiligo • Recent appendicitis • Operated gastric cancer • Alzheimer disease • SLE 8 7 2 1 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 *: percentage calculated in known information group; BMI: body mass index; COPD: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; SLE: systemic lupus erythematosus. Other clinical signs reported were nausea, anorexia, vomiting, and food intolerance [23,31,38,45]. However, these gastrointestinal signs are encountered in 30–40% of patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection. In a study by Kaafarani et al., up to half of the patients with gastrointestinal features presented some degrees of intestinal hypomotility, possibly due to direct viral invasion of the enterocytes and neuro-enteral disturbances [16]. Physical exam evidenced abdominal distension, reduced bowel sounds, and tenderness at palpation. Guarding may be evocative for peritonitis due to compromised vascularization of bowel loops and bacterial translocation or franc perforation [35,39]. A challenging case was presented by Goodfellow et al. [25] in a patient with a recent history of bariatric surgery with Roux en Y gastric bypass, presenting with acute abdominal pain which imposed the differential diagnosis with an internal hernia. Upcinar et al. [24] reported a case of an 82-years female that also associated atrial fibrillation. The patient was anticoagulated with enoxaparin 0.4 cc twice daily before admission and continued the anticoagulant therapy during hospitalization for COVID-19 pneumonia. Bedside echocardiography was performed to exclude atrial thrombus. Although SMA was reported related to COVID-19 pneumonia, atrial fibrillation is a strong risk factor for SMA of non-COVID-19 etiology. J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 14 of 22 In ICU patients, acute bowel ischemia should be suspected in cases that present acute onset of digestive intolerance and stasis, abdominal distension, and require an increase of vasopressor medication [19]. 3.3. Imagistic and Lab Test Findings D-dimer is a highly sensitive investigation for the prothrombotic state caused by COVID-19 [45] and, when reported, was found to be above the normal values. Leukocytosis and acute phase biomarkers, such as fibrinogen and CRP were elevated, mirroring the intensity of inflammation and sepsis caused by the ischemic bowel. However, there was no significant statistical correlation between either the leukocyte count (p = 0.803) or D-dimers (p = 0.08) and the outcome. Leucocyte count may be within normal values in case of early presentation [34]. Thrombocytosis and thrombocytopenia have been reported in published cases with mesenteric ischemia [30,35,42,46,50]. Lactate levels were reported in 9 cases, with values higher than 2 mmol/L in 5 cases (55%). LDH was determined in 6 cases, and it was found to be elevated in all cases, with a mean value of 594+/−305 U/L. Ferritin is another biomarker of potential value in mesenteric ischemia, that increases due to ischemia-reperfusion cellular damage. In the reviewed studies, serum ferritin was raised in 7 out of 9 reported cases, with values ranging from 456 to 1570 ng/mL. However, ferritin levels were found to be correlated also with the severity of pulmonary lesions in COVID-19 patients [52]. Due to the low number of cases in which lactate, LDH, and ferritin were reported, no statistical association could be performed with the severity of lesions or with adverse outcomes. The location and extent of venous or arterial thrombosis were determined by contrastenhanced abdominal CT, which also provided important information on the viability of the intestinal segment whose vascularity was affected. Radiological findings in the early stages included dilated intestinal loops, thickening of the intestinal wall, mesenteric fat edema, and air-fluid levels. Once the viability of the affected intestinal segment is compromised, a CT exam may evidence pneumatosis as a sign of bacterial proliferation and translocation in the intestinal wall, pneumoperitoneum due to perforation, and free fluid in the abdominal cavity. In cases with an unconfirmed diagnosis of COVID-19, examination of the pulmonary basis during abdominal CT exam can add consistent findings to establish the diagnosis. Venous thrombosis affecting the superior mesenteric vein and or portal vein was encountered in 40.9% of reported cases of non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and in only one case in the hospitalized group (Table 5). One explanation may be the beneficial role of thrombotic prophylaxis in preventing venous thrombosis in COVID-19 patients, which is routinely administrated in hospitalized cases, but not reported in cases treated at home with COVID-19 pneumonia. In ICU patients, CT exam showed in most cases permeable mesenteric vessels and diffuse intestinal ischemia affecting the large bowel alone (56%) or in association with the small bowel (24%), suggesting pathogenic mechanisms, direct viral infection, small vessel thrombosis, or “nonocclusive mesenteric ischemia” [16]. 3.4. Management and Outcomes The management of mesenteric ischemia includes gastrointestinal decompression, fluid resuscitation, hemodynamic support, anticoagulation, and broad antibiotics. Once the thromboembolic event was diagnosed, heparin, 5000IU iv, or enoxaparin or LMWH in therapeutic doses was initiated, followed by long-term oral anticoagulation and/or anti-aggregating therapy. Favorable results were obtained in 7 out of 9 cases (77%) of splanchnic veins thrombosis and in 2 of 7 cases (28.5%) with superior mesenteric artery thrombosis. At discharge, anticoagulation therapy was continued either with LMWH, for a period up to 3 months [33,36,41], either, long term warfarin, with INR control [32,34,41] or apixaban 5 mg/day, up to 6 months [26,47]. No readmissions were reported. J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 15 of 22 Table 5. Comparative features in acute intestinal ischemia encountered in previously hospitalized and previously non-hospitalized COVID-19 patients. Parameter Hospitalized (63) NonHospitalized (26) p * Value Type of mesenteric ischemia: • Arterial • Venous • Mixt (A + V) • Diffuse microthrombosis • Multiple thromboembolic locations • NA 5 (14.7% *) 1 (2.9%) 0 30 (88.2%) 2 (5.8%) 29 10 (38.4%) 11 (42.3%) 2 (7.6%) 3 (11.5%) 1 (3.8%) 0 p < 0.0001 Management: • Anticoagulation therapy only • Endovascular thrombectomy • Laparotomy with ischemic bowel resection • None (fulminant evolution) 0 2 (1 + surgery) (3%) 60 (95.4%) 2 (3%) 10 (38.4%) 2 (+surgery) 15 (57.6%) 1 (3.8%) p < 0.0001 Location of the resected segment: • Colon • Small bowel • Colon+small bowel • NA 35 (56%) 10 (16%) 15 (24%) 6 0 12 (80%) 3 (20%) 0 p < 0.0001 Outcomes: • Recovery • Death • NA 26 (46.4%) 30 (54.4%) 7 17 (79.3%) 5 (21.7%) 3 p = 0.013 * calculated for Chi-squared test. Antibiotic classes should cover anaerobes including F. necrophorum and include a combination of beta-lactam and beta-lactamase inhibitor (e.g., piperacillin-tazobactam), metronidazole, ceftriaxone, clindamycin, and carbapenems [4]. In early diagnosis, during the first 12 h from the onset, vascular surgery may be tempted, avoiding the enteral resection [25,53]. Endovascular management is a minimally invasive approach, allowing quick restoration of blood flow in affected vessels using techniques such as aspiration, thrombectomy, thrombolysis, and angioplasty with or without stenting [40]. Laparotomy with resection of the necrotic bowel should be performed as quickly as possible to avoid perforation and septic shock. In cases in which intestinal viability cannot be established with certainty, a second look laparotomy was performed after 24–48 h [43] or the abdominal cavity was left open, using negative pressure systems such as ABTHERA [51], and successive segmentary enterectomy was performed. Several authors described in acute bowel ischemia encountered in ICU patients with COVID-19, a distinct yellowish color, rather than the typical purple or black color of ischemic bowel, predominantly located at the antimesenteric side or circumferentially with affected areas well delineated from the adjacent healthy areas [18,19]. In these cases, patency of large mesenteric vessels was confirmed, and the histopathological reports J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 16 of 22 showed endothelitis, inflammation, and microvascular thrombosis in the submucosa or transmural. Despite early surgery, the outcome is severe in these cases, with an overall mortality of 45–50% in reported studies and up to 100% in patients over 65 years of age according to Hwabejira et al. [19]. In COVID-19 patients non hospitalized at the onset of an acute ischemic event, with mild and moderate forms of the disease, the outcome was less severe, with recovery in 77% of cases. We found that age over 60 years and the necessity of surgical treatment are statistically correlated with a poor outcome in the reviewed studies (Table 6). According to the type of mesenteric ischemia, the venous thrombosis was more likely to have a favorable outcome (recovery in 80% of cases), while vascular micro thombosis lead to death in 66% of cases. Table 6. Risk factors for severe outcome. Parameters Outcome: Death p-Value Age • Age < 60 • Age > 60 27.2% 60% 0.0384 * 0.043 ** Surgery • No surgery • surgery 0% 60% 0.019 ** Type of mesenteric ischemia • Arterial • Venous • Micro thrombosis 47% 20% 66% 0.23 ** D dimers Wide variation 0.085 * 0.394 ** Leucocytes Wide variation (9650–37,000/mmc) 0.803 0.385 ** * One-way ANOVA test; ** Chi-squared test (SciStat® software, (accessed on 25 November 2021)). 4. Discussions Classically, acute mesenteric ischemia is a rare surgical emergency encountered in the elderly with cardiovascular or portal-associated pathology, such as arterial hypertension, atrial fibrillation, atherosclerosis, heart failure, valve disease, and portal hypertension. However, in the current context of the COVID-19 pandemic, mesenteric ischemia should be suspected in any patient presenting in an emergency with acute abdominal pain, regardless of age and associated diseases. Several biomarkers were investigated for the potential diagnostic and prognostic value in acute mesenteric ischemia. Serum lactate is a non-specific biomarker of tissue hypoperfusion and undergoes significant elevation only after advanced mesenteric damage. Several clinical trials found a value higher than 2 mmol/L was significantly associated with increased mortality in non-COVID-patients. However, its diagnostic value is still a subject of debate. There are two detectable isomers, L-lactate, which is a nonspecific biomarker of anaerobic metabolism, and hypoxia and D-lactate, which is produced by the activity of intestinal bacteria. Higher D-lactate levels could be more specific for mesenteric ischemia due to increased bacterial proliferation at the level of the ischemic bowel, but the results obtained in different studies are mostly inconsistent [53,54]. Several clinical studies found that LDH is a useful biomarker for acute mesenteric ischemia, [55,56]. However, interpretation of the results may be difficult in COVID-19 patients, as both lactate and LDH were also found to be independent risk factors of severe forms of COVID-19 [57,58]. The diagnosis of an ischemic bowel should be one of the top differentials in critically ill patients with acute onset of abdominal pain and distension [50,59]. If diagnosed early, the J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 17 of 22 intestinal ischemia is potentially reversible and can be treated conservatively. Heparin has an anticoagulant, anti-inflammatory, endothelial protective role in COVID-19, which can improve microcirculation and decrease possible ischemic events [25]. The appropriate dose, however, is still a subject of debate with some authors recommending the prophylactic, others the intermediate or therapeutic daily amount [25,60]. We found that surgery is associated with a severe outcome in the reviewed studies. Mucosal ischemia may induce massive viremia from bowel epithelium causing vasoplegic shock after surgery [25]. Moreover, many studies reported poor outcomes in COVID-19 patients that underwent abdominal surgery [61,62]. 4.1. Pathogenic Pathways of Mesenteric Ischemia in COVID-19 Patients The intestinal manifestations encountered in SARS-CoV-2 infection are represented by inflammatory changes (gastroenteritis, colitis), occlusions, ileus, invaginations, and ischemic manifestations. Severe inflammation in the intestine can cause damage to the submucosal vessels, resulting in hypercoagulability in the intestine. Cases of acute cholecystitis, splenic infarction, or acute pancreatitis have also been reported in patients infected with SARS-CoV-2, with microvascular lesions as a pathophysiological mechanism [63]. In the study of O’Shea et al., on 146 COVID-19 hospitalized patients that underwent CT-scan, vascular thrombosis was identified in 26% of cases, the most frequent location being in lungs [20]. Gastrointestinal ischemic lesions were identified in 4 cases, in multiple locations (pulmonary, hepatic, cerebellar parenchymal infarction) in 3 patients. The authors raised awareness about the possibility of underestimation of the incidence of thrombotic events in COVID-19 patients [20]. Several pathophysiological mechanisms have been considered, and they can be grouped into occlusive and non-occlusive causes [64]. The site of the ischemic process, embolism or thrombosis, may be in the micro vascularization, veins, or mesenteric arteries. Acute arterial obstruction of the small intestinal vessels and mesenteric ischemia may appear due to hypercoagulability associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, mucosal ischemia, viral dissemination, and endothelial cell invasion vis ACE-2 receptors [65,66]. Viral binding to ACE2Receptors leads to significant changes in fluid-coagulation balance: reduction in Ang 2 degradation leads to increased Il6 levels, and the onset of storm cytokines, such as IL-2, IL-7, IL-10, granulocyte colony-stimulating factor, IgG -induced protein 10, monocyte chemoattractant protein-1, macrophage inflammatory protein 1-alpha, and tumor necrosis factor α [67], but also in the expression of the tissue inhibitor of plasminogen -1, and a tissue factor, and subsequently triggering the coagulation system through binding to the clotting factor VIIa [68]. Acute embolism in small vessels may be caused by the direct viral invasion, via ACE-2 Receptors, resulting in endothelitis and inflammation, recruiting immune cells, and expressing high levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, such as Il-6 and TNF-alfa, with consequently apoptosis of the endothelial cells [69]. Capillary viscometry showed hyperviscosity in critically ill COVID-19 patients [70,71]. Platelet activation, platelet–monocyte aggregation formation, and Neutrophil external traps (NETs) released from activated neutrophils, constitute a mixture of nucleic DNA, histones, and nucleosomes [59,72] were documented in severe COVID-19 patients by several studies [70,71,73]. Plotz et al. found a thrombotic vasculopathy with histological evidence for lectin pathway complement activation mirroring viral protein deposition in a patient with COVID19 and SLE, suggesting this might be a potential mechanism in SARS-CoV-2 associated thrombotic disorders [47]. Numerous alterations in fluid-coagulation balance have been reported in patients hospitalized for COVID-19 pneumonia. Increases in fibrinogen, D-dimers, but also coagulation factors V and VIII. The mechanisms of coagulation disorders in COVID-19 are not yet fully elucidated. In a clinical study by Stefely et al. [68] in a group of 102 patients with severe disease, an increase in factor V > 200 IU was identified in 48% of cases, the levels determined being statistically significantly higher than in non-COVID mechanically J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 18 of 22 ventilated or unventilated patients hospitalized in intensive care. This showed that the increased activity of Factor V cannot be attributed to disease severity or mechanical ventilation. Additionally, an increase in factor X activity was shown, but not correlated with an increase in factor V activity, but with an increase in acute phase reactants, suggesting distinct pathophysiological mechanisms [74]. Giuffre et al. suggest that fecal calcoprotein (FC) may be a biomarker for the severity of gastrointestinal complications, by both ischemic and inflammatory mechanisms [75]. They found particularly elevated levels of FC to be well correlated with D-dimers levels in patients with bowel perforations, and hypothesized that the mechanism may be related to a thrombosis localized to the gut and that FC increase is related to virus-related inflammation and thrombosis-induced ischemia, as shown by gross pathology [76]. Non-occlusive mesenteric ischemia in patients hospitalized in intensive care units for SARS-CoV-2 pneumonia requiring vasopressor medication may be caused vasospastic constriction [19,64,65]. Thrombosis of the mesenteric vessels could be favored by hypercoagulability, relative dehydration, and side effects of corticosteroids. 4.2. Question Still to Be Answered Current recommendations for in-hospital patients with COVID-19 requiring anticoagulation suggest LMWH as first-line treatment has advantages, with higher stability compared to heparin during cytokine storms, and a reduced risk of interaction with antiviral therapy compared to oral anticoagulant medication [77]. Choosing the adequate doses of LMWH in specific cases—prophylactic, intermediate, or therapeutic—is still in debate. Thromboprophylaxis is highly recommended in the absence of contraindications, due to the increased risk of venous thrombosis and arterial thromboembolism associated with SARS-CoV-2 infection, with dose adjustment based on weight and associated risk factors. Besides the anticoagulant role, some authors also reported an anti-inflammatory role of heparin in severe COVID-19 infection [66,78,79]. Heparin is known to decrease inflammation by inhibiting neutrophil activity, expression of inflammatory mediators, and the proliferation of vascular smooth muscle cells [78]. Thromboprophylaxis with enoxaparin could be also recommended to ambulatory patients with mild to moderate forms of COVID-19 if the results of prospective studies show statistically relevant benefits [80]. In addition to anticoagulants, other therapies, such as anti-complement and interleukin (IL)-1 receptor antagonists, need to be explored, and other new agents should be discovered as they emerge from our better understanding of the pathogenetic mechanisms [81]. Several studies showed the important role of Il-1 in endothelial dysfunction, inflammation, and thrombi formation in COVID-19 patients by stimulating the production of Thromboxane A2 (TxA2) and thromboxane B2 (TxB2). These findings may justify the recommendation for an IL-1 receptor antagonist (IL-1Ra) which can prevent hemodynamic changes, septic shock, organ inflammation, and vascular thrombosis in severe forms of COVID-19 patients [80–82]. 5. Conclusions Understanding the pathological pathways and risk factors could help adjust the thromboprophylaxis and fluid management in COVID-19 patients. The superior mesenteric vein thrombosis is the most frequent cause of acute intestinal ischemia in COVID-19 nonhospitalized patients that are not under anticoagulant medication, while non-occlusive mesenteric ischemia and microvascular thrombosis are most frequent in severe cases, hospitalized in intensive care units. COVID-19 patients should be carefully monitored for acute onset of abdominal symptoms. High-intensity pain and abdominal distension, associated with leukocytosis, raised inflammatory biomarkers and elevated D-dimers and are highly suggestive for mesenteric ischemia. The contrast-enhanced CT exam, repeated, if necessary, offers valuable information regarding the location and extent of the acute ischemic event. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for survival.

J. Clin. Med. 2022, 11, 200 19 of 22 Supplementary Materials: The following supporting information can be downloaded at: https: //, File S1: The PRISMA 2020 statement. Author Contributions: Conceptualization, D.S., L.C.T. and A.M.D.; methodology, A.P.S., C.T. (Corneliu Tudor); software, G.V.; validation, A.I.S., M.S.T., D.S. and L.D.; formal analysis, A.C.C., C.T. (Ciprian Tanasescu); investigation, G.A.G.; data curation, D.O.C.; writing—original draft preparation, L.C.T., A.M.D., G.V., D.O.C., G.A.G., C.T. (Corneliu Tudor); writing—review and editing, L.D., C.T. (Ciprian Tanasescu), A.C.C., D.S., A.P.S., A.I.S., M.S.T.; visualization, G.V. and L.C.T.; supervision, D.S., A.M.D. and D.S. have conducted the screening and selection of studies included in the review All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript. Funding: This research received no external funding. Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare no conflict of interest. References 1. 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The coagulopathy, endotheliopathy, and vasculitis of COVID-19

Authors: Toshiaki Iba 1Jean Marie Connors 2Jerrold H Levy 3



COVID-19-associated coagulopathy (CAC) characterized by the elevated D-dimer without remarkable changes of other global coagulation markers is associated with various thrombotic complications and disease severity. The purpose of this review is to elucidate the pathophysiology of this unique coagulopathy.


The authors performed online search of published medical literature through PubMed using the MeSH (Medical Subject Headings) term “COVID-19,” “SARS-CoV-2,” “coronavirus,” “coagulopathy,” and “thrombus.” Then, selected 51 articles that closely relevant to coagulopathy in COVID-19.


The primary targets of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) are the pneumocytes, immune cells, and vascular endothelial cells. The alveolar damage and the pulmonary microvascular thrombosis are the major causes of acute lung injury in COVID-19. The endotheliopathy that occurs is due to direct SARS-CoV-2 infection and activation of other pathways that include the immune system and thromboinflammatory responses leading to what is termed CAC. As a result, both microvascular and macrovascular thrombotic events occur in arterial, capillary, venule, and large vein vascular beds to produce multiorgan dysfunction and thrombotic complications. In addition to the endothelial damage, SARS-CoV-2 also can cause vasculitis and presents as a systemic inflammatory vascular disease. Clinical management of COVID-19 includes anticoagulation but novel therapies for endotheliopathy, hypercoagulability, and vasculitis are needed.


The endotheliopathy due to direct endothelial infection with SARS-COV-2 and the indirect damage caused by inflammation play the predominant role in the development of CAC. The intensive control of thromboinflammation is necessary to improve the outcome of this highly detrimental contagious disease.


Ongoing reports have described the hypercoagulability and thrombotic tendency in COVID-19 [1]. The high incidence of deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism has focused on the critical role of routine antithrombotic prophylaxis for COVID-19 management, especially in critically ill patients and/or elevated D-dimer levels [2,3,4]. Current reports of venous and arterial thrombotic events in the patients treated in ICU is up to 30% even with pharmacological thromboprophylaxis, and thrombotic events are associated with 5.4 times higher risk of mortality [5]. Recent postmortem evaluation of COVID-19 patients has demonstrated severe endothelial injury with cellular death/apoptosis, and the presence of intracellular virus in the autopsy lung with thrombosis and small to middle-size pulmonary vessels. The clotting and vascular damage were also confirmed in the alveolar capillary and these changes are more remarkable in COVID-19 compared to influenza induced lung injury [6]. In this summary, we will review the pathophysiology of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)-induced endotheliopathy, COVID-19-associated coagulopathy (CAC), and vasculitis.

Coagulopathy in COVID-19

The mechanism of coagulopathy in COVID-19

Thromboembolic complications are the hallmark of COVID-19 that can cause death even in asymptomatic COVID-19 [7]. The new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 elicits an acute inflammatory effect with hypercoagulability, platelet activation, and endothelial dysfunction [8]. Although, this presentation has similarities with sepsis-induced coagulopathy (SIC) due to bacterial infections and disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC), there are several important differences [8]. In CAC, patients often initially present with increased fibrinogen levels, increased D-dimers, but minor changes in prothrombin time and platelet count compared to acute bacterial sepsis that can produce thrombocytopenia, prolonged prothrombin times, and decreased antithrombin levels [49]. It is also known that inflammatory cytokine levels are elevated in COVID-19 and excess production of inflammatory cytokines can induce hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH)/macrophage activation syndrome (MAS) that can result in a thrombotic coagulation disorder [10]. Although the pathophysiology of HLH/MAS seems similar to COVID-19, the reported cytokine level is much lower in COVID-19 [11]. Conversely, the endothelial derangement, detailed in the next section, is predominant in COVID-19. Other than HLH/MAS, various thrombotic diseases such as thrombotic microangiopathy, and antiphospholipid syndrome can occur, and the characteristics of these diseases look similar to CAC [12]. Even though the pathogeneses of these thrombotic diseases partially overlap with CAC, it is important to delineate the unique statue of CAC to plan a therapeutic strategy.

The evaluation of COVID-19-associated coagulopathy

D-Dimer monitoring is important in COVID-19 coagulopathy. Although D-dimer is initially elevated, other conventional coagulation laboratory tests including prothrombin time (PT), activated partial thromboplastin time (aPTT), and platelet count are often normal, and are not useful indicators of the thrombotic risk. The increase of factor VIII and von Willebrand factor (VWF) [13], potentially the presence of antiphospholipid antibodies [14], and increased activity of complement system are also reported, however, monitoring these biomarkers is not practical. The pathogenesis of coagulopathy in COVID-19 is complex but the typical CAC can be diagnosed by increased D-dimer, elevated fibrinogen and VWF levels, but relatively normal PT, aPTT, and platelet count. A pathway for diagnosing CAC versus other coagulopathies is illustrated in Fig. 1.

figure 1
Fig. 1

Thrombin generation testing (TGT) measures ex vivo thrombin formation in plasma upon activation with tissue factor. TGT allows calculation of peak and total thrombin generation, as well as time to initial and peak thrombin generation. This assay can identify both reduced and increased thrombin generation. Nougier et al. [15] revealed increased thrombin generation in COVID-19 patients despite undergone anticoagulation. The major drawbacks of TGT are the lack of standardization and the requirement of technical training.

Other potential assays to assess global coagulation status include viscoelastic testing, especially in ICU patients, as a point of care test. An increasing number of studies report hypercoagulability as indicated by decreased R or clot times, and increased maximal amplitude/maximal clot firmness by viscoelastic monitoring [16,17,18]. However, these changes are consistent with high fibrinogen levels that affect both maximal amplitude on thromboelastography (TEG), and maximum clot firmness on rotational thromboelastometry (ROTEM). Ranucci et al. [17] reported the median fibrinogen level was nearly 800 mg/dL in the COVID-19 patients treated in ICU, and such a high fibrinogen level affects TEG and ROTEM parameters considerably by itself [19].

Endotheliopathy in COVID-19

The endothelial damage and thrombosis

An important feature of CAC is the microcirculatory endothelial damage in pulmonary circulation and other vascular beds. Since SARS-CoV-2 directly infects the vascular endothelial cell causing cellular damage and apoptosis, the antithrombotic activity of the luminal surface is remarkably decreased [20]. In COVID-19, both alveolar damage and microcirculatory disturbance associated with thrombus formation contribute to respiratory dysfunction. At autopsy, findings reported include clot formation in pulmonary arterioles with diffuse alveolar damage and hyaline membranes [21]. Normal endothelial function refers to the ability of regulating vascular tonus, permeability, cell adhesion, and anticoagulation. Healthy endothelial cells synthesize nitric oxide (NO) by conversion of L-arginine to L-citrulline by nitric oxide synthase. NO released by endothelium prevents leukocyte and platelet adhesion, inflammatory cell migration into the vessel wall, smooth muscle cell proliferation, and suppresses apoptosis and inflammation. SARS-Cov-2 enters endothelial cells through endocytosis and is mediated by an interplay of Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and the transmembrane protease serine 2 (TMPRSS-2) which sheds a part of spike protein and helps SARS-Cov-2 to enter into endothelial cell. The infected endothelial cells lose their ability to maintain aforementioned physiological functions. Subsequently, the damage of the endothelium leads to the procoagulant change of the vascular lumen, formation of immunothrombosis, and organ malcirculation.

Both systemic pulmonary microthrombosis and thromboembolism are commonly seen in COVID-19. This typical figure is thought to be the result of hypercoagulability due to the dysregulated endothelial function of the pulmonary vessels and systemic inflammation. In addition to the deep vein thrombus that results in an embolic event, in situ formation in the pulmonary arteries can be the main reason of pulmonary dysfunction. Lax et al. [22] performed autopsies in 11 patients and reported that despite the absence of clinical presentations of thromboembolism, thrombus formation in small and mid-sized pulmonary arteries was found in all of the examined cases. In these cases, thrombus is suspected to form at the peripheral arteriole and elongate proximally. According to another series of autopsy findings, the incidence of thrombus formation in the pulmonary microvasculature is approximately nine times higher than that seen in influenza [6].

The endothelial damage-derived hypercoagulability

ACE2, the host cellular receptor of SARS-CoV-2, has been identified on the vascular endothelial surface. SARS-CoV-2 uses ACE2 to invade into the cell through the fusion of its membrane to the host cell membrane. As a result, the host cell loses ACE2 activity which subsequently leads to reduced angiotensin II inactivation and decreased conversion to antiotensin1-7. Increased angiotensin II stimulates vascular constriction and decreased antiotensin1-7 suppresses nitric oxide production which triggers increased thrombogenicity due to leucocyte and platelet adhesion and vasoconstriction [23].

The vascular endothelium is coated by a gel-like component known as the glycocalyx, that regulates vascular blood flow by providing an antithrombotic surface via antithrombin binding to the heparan sulfate constituents, a major component of the glycocalyx. Although the circulating antithrombin level has been reported to be in a normal range on presentation in COVID-19 cases [13], if the glycocalyx is disrupted, the local antithrombogenicity of the endothelial surface may be altered. However, little information on the glycocalyx status in COVID-19 is available.

One of the unique features of CAC is the increase in VWF and factor VIII [1324] and it is suggested to be the result of vascular response to SARS-CoV-2 infection. VWF and factor VIII are stored in the Weibel-Palade body of endothelial cells and released in response to infectious stimuli [25] (Fig. 2). The increase in VWF suggests a possible similarity to thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura, however, ADAMTS13 (a disintegrin and metalloproteinase with a thrombospondin type 1 motif, member 13) levels in COVID-19 although reported to be decreased, may not be severely depleted as in thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura [26]. The increased VWF levels to 3–4 times normal values seen in patients with COVID-19 may overwhelm the ADAMTS13 activity to degrade the ultra large VWF multimers. The importance of circulating VWF and multimer size in CAC is not established, however, one of the suggested methods to reduce the risk of thrombotic events due to excess ultra large VWF itself is plasma exchange [2728].

figure 2
Fig. 2

Similar to factor VIII and VWF, angiopoietin 2, also stored in Weibel-Palade bodies, is known to be released and its circulating level increases in COVID-19 [29]. Angiopoietin 2 serves as an antagonist of angiopoietin 1 and inhibits anti-inflammatory, anticoagulatory, and antiapoptotic signaling induced by angiopoietin 1 by binding to Tie2 competitively [30] (Fig. 3). Tie2 activation by angiopoietin 1 also normalizes prothrombotic responses by inhibiting endothelial tissue factor and phosphatidylserine exposure in sepsis, and therefore, Tie2 signaling is considered to play a central role in the regulation of thrombus formation in SIC/DIC [31]. Angiotensin 2 is also known to increase endothelial permeability and is considered an important factor in acute respiratory distress syndrome [32]. The role of angiopoietin 2 in CAC has not been studied well and it should be the focus in future studies.

figure 3
Fig. 3

The monitoring of endothelial damage

One of the difficulties in clinical studies of endothelial research is the limited availability of ideal biomarkers. The glycocalyx provides an interface between blood flow and endothelial cells. Since the glycocalyx is fragile, its components are used as biomarkers of endothelial damage in various diseases including infectious diseases [30]. One such biomarker is a hyaluronic acid, a major glycocalyx component. Circulating levels of hyaluronic acid, are elevated in critically ill COVID-19 patients compared with less severe cases [33]. Other than that, the proteins that are released from the Weibel-Palade body i.e., VWF, FVIII, and P-selectin are the potential biomarkers. In addition, sensitive coagulation markers such as thrombin-antithrombin complex (TAT) and prothrombin fragment 1 + 2 can be a marker for the microthrombosis. Goshua et al. [34] reported VWF antigen/antibody, FVIII activity, and TAT levels are significantly higher in the more severe cases.

As previously mentioned, angiopoietin 2 is stored in the endothelial cells and secreted along with the endothelial damage. Reportedly, angiopoietin 2 levels are associated with coagulation disorder, organ damage and death in bacterial sepsis [35]. Smadja et al. [29] measured angiopoietin 2, D-dimer, CRP, and creatinine in consecutive 40 COVID-19 patients treated in ICU, and found angiopoietin 2, cut-off of 5000 pg/mL, as the best predictor for poor outcome (sensitivity: 80.1%, specificity: 70%). It is crucial to find a good biomarker of vascular damage in COVID-19 study.

Therapeutic strategies for endothelial damage

Despite prophylactic anticoagulation in CAC, patients can still develop thrombotic sequela. A recent study reported that despite systematic use of thromboprophylaxis, 31% of the COVID-19 patients treated in ICU developed thrombotic complications [36]. In another study, the cumulative incidence of arterial and venous thromboembolism was 49% [3]. These reports suggest that despite anticoagulation, additional therapy for endothelial injury is necessary to prevent thrombosis. Potential therapies include synthetic serine protease inhibitors such as nafamostat mesylate and camostat mesylate which theoretically prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection. Coronavirus gains entry to the cell using the host TMPRSS2 which cleaves the spike protein resulting in its ability to fuse to the host cellular membrane. These agents inhibit TMPRSS2 thereby abrogating the activating proteolytic processing of virus [37]. Since nafamostat mesylate also has anticoagulatory effects, it has been used for DIC and anticoagulation for extracorporeal circuits in Japan.

Other therapeutic considerations are the physiologic anticoagulants such as protein C and antithrombin. The dual action of protein C/activated protein C to inactivate factor VIIIa and upregulate ACE2 are the advantage of this system which suppress both coagulation and inflammation. Activated protein C can also reduce pulmonary injury by suppressing the macrophage inflammatory protein family chemokine response [38]. Antithrombin is another multifaceted serine protease inhibitor of multiple coagulation factors, but also protects the glycocalyx by binding to heparan sulfate [39]. Bikdeli et al. [40] noted in their recent review of pharmacological therapy targeting thromboinflammation in COVID-19, that antithrombin suppresses excess inflammation by inhibiting nuclear factor-κB, it may be suitable for the treatment of CAC. However, the effects of these agents in COVID-19 haven’t been examined in clinical trials and future study may be warranted.

Arterial thrombosis in COVID-19

Arterial thrombosis is an uncommon event in other infection-associated coagulopathies. In contrast, stroke, ischemic coronary disease, and thrombotic limb ischemia can occur in COVID-19. Lodigiani et al. [41] reported the rate of ischemic stroke and acute coronary syndrome was 2.5% and 1.1%, respectively, in Italy. Kashi et al. [42] reported two cases of floating thrombi in thoracic aorta and such cases are extremely odd in previously described infectious diseases. Antiphospholipid syndrome is known as a disease that result in arterial thrombosis and can occur secondary to infection. Some reports have shown increased lupus anticoagulant, anticardiolipin, and anti-β2-glycoprotein I antibodies, however, the presence of high titer IgG antibody, an important responsible factor, has not proven yet [132443], and the association between antiphospholipid syndrome and CAC is still unclear. The presence of unusually large VWF multimers and subsequent activation of platelets and microthrombi can explain the occurrence of arterial macrothrombosis [44], and Williams et al. [45] reported elevated VWF levels were associated with the increased risk for recurrent stroke. However, a definitive cause and effect relation has not been proven yet. The occurrence of arterial thrombosis is difficult to predict and there are no good prophylactic strategies. Oxley et al. [7] reported five cases of large-vessel stroke in patients younger than 50 years of age. The mechanism of arterial thrombosis in COVID-19 remains a mystery and prediction of the events was not possible in any of the cases; demographic factors, laboratory data, and severity of COVID-19 did not appear to be related to arterial events.

Clot formation in extracorporeal circuits

The high incidence of clot formation during extracorporeal circulation has been recognized. Helms et al. [13] studied 150 COVID-19 patients and reported 28 out of 29 patients (96.6%) receiving continuous renal replacement therapy (CRRT) experienced clotting of the circuit. The median lifespan of an CRRT circuit was 1.5 days which is only half of the recommendation duration. They also reported 12 patients (8%) were treated by extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO), and among them, thrombotic occlusions of centrifugal pump occurred in 2 patients. Methods to minimize extracorporeal circuit clotting include prefilter infusion of heparin and the use of citrate-based replacement fluid for dialysis are not always successful [46]. The reason for the high incidence of CRRT filter and ECMO oxygenator coagulation is not known, but factors other than endotheliopathy such as hypercoagulability, hypofibrinolysis, and platelet activation must attribute. The elevated VWF activity, increased factor VIII level, and high fibrinogen level may lead to microthrombi formation possibly occluding the filter. Suppressed fibrinolysis may also play a role [47], with excess angiotensin II enhancing the expression of PAI-1 in the endothelium in COVID-19 [48].

Vasculitis in COVID-19

A report from northern Italy observed significantly increased number of patients with Kawasaki disease, an acute self-limiting vasculitis predominantly involving the coronary arteries, with hemodynamically unstable Kawasaki disease shock syndrome (KDSS) during the COVID-19 pandemic [49]. It is also reported that children with COVID-19 are more likely to show MAS that resembles secondary HLH. Varga et al. [50] demonstrated the direct viral infection of the endothelial cell and diffuse endothelial inflammation which are followed by the induction of endothelitis, apoptosis, and pyroptosis in autopsy cases of COVID-19. Of note is the mononuclear cell infiltrations into the vascular intima along the lumen of many vessels also reported in this post-mortem analysis. This finding suggests that the virus can invade into human vasculature and cause vasculitis. Roncati et al. [51] estimated the escalation from type 2 T-helper immune response to type 3 hypersensitivity is involved in the pathophysiology of COVID-19-induced vasculitis. They reported the deposition of immune complexes inside the vascular walls causing more severe inflammatory reaction, and interleukin-6 is the key myokine in this scenario.


The mechanism of coagulopathy in COVID-19 continues to be investigated. However, the predominant role of endotheliopathy due to direct endothelial infection with SARS-COV-2 and the indirect damage caused by inflammation are part of the complex thromboinflammatory process. The elevated circulating levels of clotting factors including fibrinogen, factor VIII, VWF released from the stimulated endothelial cells, and the loss of the thromboprotective function with glycocalyx damage and decreased nitric oxide production also contribute to the coagulopathy and thromboinflammation. SARS-CoV-2 damages not only the luminal surface of the vasculature but also induce vasculitis, contributing to the significant pathology associated with COVID-19.


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This work was supported in part by a Grant-in-Aid for Special Research in Subsidies for ordinary expenses of private schools from The Promotion and Mutual Aid Corporation for Private Schools of Japan.

Author information


  1. Department of Emergency and Disaster Medicine, Juntendo University Graduate School of Medicine, 2-1-1 Hongo Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, 113-8421, JapanToshiaki Iba
  2. Hematology Division Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA, USAJean Marie Connors
  3. Department of Anesthesiology, Critical Care, and Surgery, Duke University School of Medicine, Durham, NC, USAJerrold H. Levy

Role of von Willebrand Factor in COVID-19 Associated Coagulopathy

Authors: Zhen W MeiXander M R van WijkHuy P PhamMaximo J Marin

The Journal of Applied Laboratory Medicine, Volume 6, Issue 5, September 2021, Pages 1305–1315, 13 June 2021



COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2 (severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2) can present with symptoms ranging from none to severe. Thrombotic events occur in a significant number of patients with COVID-19, especially in critically ill patients. This apparent novel form of coagulopathy is termed COVID-19-associated coagulopathy (CAC), and endothelial derived von Willebrand factor (vWF) may play an important role in its pathogenesis.Content

vWF is a multimeric glycoprotein molecule that is involved in inflammation, primary and secondary hemostasis. Studies have shown that patients with COVID-19 have significantly elevated levels of vWF antigen and activity, likely contributing to an increased risk of thrombosis seen in CAC. The high levels of both vWF antigen and activity have been clinically correlated with worse outcomes. Furthermore, the severity of a COVID-19 infection appears to reduce molecules that regulate vWF level and activity such as ADAMTS-13 and high-density lipoproteins (HDL). Finally, studies have suggested that patients with group O blood (a blood group with lower baseline levels of vWF) have a lower risk of infection and disease severity compared to other ABO blood groups; however, more studies are needed to elucidate the role of vWF.Summary

CAC is a significant contributor to morbidity and mortality. Endothelial dysfunction with the release of prothrombotic factors, such as vWF, needs further examination as a possible important component in the pathogenesis of CAC.von Willebrand FactorCOVID-19coagulopathyendothelial injurythrombosisIssue Section: Mini-review

Introduction and Background

COVID-19 Pandemic

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) was initially identified in Wuhan, China in 2019. COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2, quickly evolved into a global pandemic. According to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, there were more than 20 million confirmed cases and almost 350,000 deaths in the US alone, by the end of 2020. Although COVID-19 may present with a variety of symptoms, a large majority of infected individuals may have none to only mild symptoms (1). However, the mortality rate is dominated by a subset of patients with severe respiratory failure that meet the criteria for acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and require respiratory support (12). The development of severe disease is related to interstitial viral pneumonia, systemic inflammation, respiratory failure, and multiorgan dysfunction (3).Impact Statement

COVID-19 is a global pandemic with no current effective treatment. COVID-19-associated coagulopathy contributes to patient morbidity and mortality. von Willebrand factor (vWF) may play an important role in the pathogenesis of this coagulopathy. Currently, available studies have demonstrated that patients with COVID-19 have significantly elevated levels of vWF antigen and activity as well as reduced regulatory molecules, which could contribute to an increased risk of thrombosis seen in patients who develop coagulopathy. Elucidation of vWF role in patients with COVID-19 may offer additional insights into developing novel therapies for this disease.

Viral Pathophysiology

SARS-CoV-2 preferentially binds to host cells that express the angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 receptor (ACE2) through the viral spike protein structure. The initiation and progression of the SARS-CoV-2 infection is likely dependent on a combination of factors, including, but not limited to, host cell expression of ACE2, anatomic contiguity with the environment, inoculation dose at the time of exposure, and the host immune response to the infection. In general, the initial infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus targets the cells of the respiratory system such as nasal or bronchial epithelial cells and pneumocytes. However, if the severity of the infection progresses to a systemic inflammatory phase, the mechanism is likely a complex combination of the virus entering the blood stream, infection of other cells expressing ACE2 receptors, tissue/organ specificity, and the inflammatory milieu. However, the extent to which each factor contributes to the systemic severity remains unclear. Additionally, in severe COVID-19 cases, endothelial cells (ECs), which also express ACE2 receptors, are activated, leading to endothelial dysfunction and possible injury that parallels clinical manifestations, such as coagulopathy and prothrombotic tendency (4).

COVID-19 Associated Coagulopathy

It is clear that a significant component of the observed morbidity and mortality is directly related to lung injury as supported by COVID-19 related autopsies (56). The predominant pattern of injury was found to be diffuse alveolar damage, which includes hyaline membrane formation, capillary congestion, inflammation, and pneumocyte necrosis. In addition, the study also identified platelet-fibrin thrombi in small arterial vessels in 87% of their cases (6). A more recent, albeit small, series showed that all COVID-19 related autopsies demonstrated platelet-fibrin thrombi in multiple organs, including the liver, kidney, heart, and lungs (5). Another autopsy case series compared lung tissue from equally severe, age-matched patients with ARDS with either COVID-19 or influenza A (H1N1) and found that alveolar capillary microthrombi were more prevalent in COVID-19 than influenza (7). This study also observed that COVID-19 lung tissue showed significant EC injury associated with intracellular SARS-CoV-2 infection (7). Furthermore, there is some evidence to suggest that COVID-19 associated coagulopathy (CAC) might be different from other coagulopathic conditions, such as disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC) and thrombotic microangiopathy (TMA), which are associated with other underlying causes such as infections, malignancy, autoimmune, and hereditary diseases (Table 1) (8). Taken together, the data indicate that a distinct coagulopathy may be occurring in COVID-19 patients, particularly those with severe symptoms.

Table 1

Laboratory data in COVID-19 and other coagulopathies.

Platelet countD-dimerPT/INR; aPTTFibrinogenAntithrombin activityComplement activationInflammatory cytokinesADAMTS-13vWF antigen
Normal within reference range within reference range within reference range within reference range within reference range within reference range within reference range within reference range within reference range 
COVID-19 generally, mildly elevated early and decreases as severity increases elevated no change to mildly elevated elevated no change increased activation, may result in lower antigen levels due to consumption elevated mildly decreased elevated 
DIC/SIC decreased elevated elevated no change to decreased decreased no increase elevated normal decreased 
TTP Severely decreased no change to elevated no change to elevated no change no change normal to mildly increased decreased severely decreased normal to mildly elevated 
HUS decreased no change to elevated no change to elevated no change no change usually mildly increased but may be normal decreased normal normal to mildly elevated 
Atypical HUS decreased no change to elevated no change to elevated no change no change moderate to severely increased decreased normal to moderately decreased normal to mildly elevated 

Normal values will vary among laboratories due to varying methodologies and reagents. Given that there are multiple markers for complement activation, inflammation, and acute phase reactants, reference ranges for these (patho)-physiological events are not provided. Of note, ADAMTS13 measurement is generally the reliable biomarker distinguishing TTP from HUS/atypical HUS. HUS can be distinguished from aHUS if the patient has history of Shiga-toxin or Streptococcus exposure. Other biomarkers may be overlapping in the spectrum from DIC/SIC to TTP/HUS/aHUS. DIC: disseminated intravascular coagulation, SIC: sepsis-induced coagulopathy, TMA: thrombotic microangiopathy, TTP: thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura, aHUS: atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome, PT: prothrombin time, aPTT: activated partial thromboplastin time, vWF: von Willebrand factor. Adapted from Iba et al. (8).Open in new tab

Incidence of CAC, especially in severe COVID-19 cases, was apparent from early reports in Wuhan (9). A number of studies have shown that the development of CAC is an important prognostic indicator of poor outcomes (10–12). One study evaluated the rate of arterial and venous thrombotic events in COVID-19 pneumonia patients admitted into the intensive care unit (ICU) and found that the incidence of thrombotic events in 184 patients was 49% (after adjustment for competing risk of death) despite receiving routine pharmacologic thromboprophylaxis; not surprisingly, these thrombotic complications led to a higher risk of death (13). Additional studies have shown similar incidence rates of thrombotic events in COVID-19 ICU patients (1415). Collectively, clinical studies suggest that CAC leads to a prothrombotic state even with standard pharmacologic thromboprophylaxis treatment.

Laboratory Patterns

In general, CAC is characterized by mild thrombocytopenia, slight prolongation of the prothrombin time (PT), high levels of D-dimer, and elevated fibrinogen (81216) (Table 1). Recent International Society for Thrombosis and Hemostasis (ISTH) interim guidance recommends monitoring these 4 parameters in the management of patients with CAC. D-dimer was designated the highest level of priority as many studies have shown that elevated levels are associated with increasing severity of disease and mortality risk (3101117–20). These studies reported a range of associations of higher D-dimer levels in COVID patients, including greater risk of mortality (31118), increased disease severity (1011), increased incidence of pulmonary emboli (17), and need for intensive care (20). Based on this data, clinical services can order a baseline D-dimer level to determine the current morbidity and mortality risk that a COVID-19 patient carries and can follow a D-dimer level to predict progression to more severe disease.

D-dimer is a breakdown product of mature clots (cross-linked fibrin mesh) that undergoes fibrinolysis. Though some studies reported data where the association with D-dimer and death may not be as compelling (2122), D-dimer levels do play a role during the follow-up and treatment of patients with CAC. There is, however, another biomarker, von Willebrand factor (vWF), which may also play an important role in the evaluation of CAC patients due to its direct relationship to hemostasis, inflammation, and EC activation/injury, which are all important aspects of COVID-19 pathogenesis. The biological role of vWF and its association with CAC will be the focus of the remainder of this review.

vWF Physiology and Laboratory Testing

vWF Biology

vWF is a multimeric glycoprotein ranging from 2 to >60 prepropolypeptide units that are each 2138 amino acids in length. The vWF propeptide sequence serves to align 2 units together to allow proper cross-linking during the multimerization process. Further post-translational modification leads to removal of the propeptide sequence as well as glycosylation, including the addition of blood group determinants. This addition of an A or B blood group determinant only occurs during EC glycosylation. Following these processes, a heterogenous mix of ultra-large-vWF (UL-vWF) molecules are synthesized and stored in megakaryocytes and ECs, respectively, in alpha granules and Weibel–Palade bodies (WPB). Additionally, other processing components such as vWF propeptides are found in the WPB of ECs. Although platelets do play an important role in both storage and secretion of vWF, this review will focus on ECs.

When ECs are activated, UL-vWF molecules are released and can either remain free-floating in the plasma or localized on endothelial surfaces. UL-vWF have greater prothrombotic activity than smaller vWF multimers. Therefore, as UL-vWF molecules are secreted, ADAMTS-13 (a disintegrase and metalloproteinase with a thrombospondin type 1 motif, member 13), cleaves vWF into smaller multimers to mitigate unwanted thrombus formation and leads to a variation in the sizes of vWF found both in the plasma and on endothelial surfaces. Elevated vWF activity levels depend on the presence of the largest vWF multimers and activation by shear stress in the circulatory system. vWF responds to shear stress by unfolding and exposing sites for activity such as self-association, platelet binding, and ADAMTS-13 cleavage. Accordingly, the imbalance of these components may lead to a prothrombotic state.

Role in Primary Hemostasis

Primary hemostasis is the process of the platelet clot formation at the site of blood vessel injury. For proper primary hemostasis to occur, platelet adhesion and aggregation must occur. During platelet adhesion at the site of blood vessel injury, platelets can bind directly to the exposed subendothelial collagen (via GPIa-IIa or GPVI receptors) or indirectly via vWF. In the latter case, platelets bind to the vWF molecule via the platelet glycoprotein Ib-V-IX receptor (GPIb) while vWF is bound to subendothelial collagen. Additionally, vWF also promotes platelet aggregation (platelet–platelet interaction) by binding to platelet surface receptor GPIIb/IIIa. Although GPIIb/IIIa is better known as a fibrinogen receptor, it can bind to both fibrinogen and vWF. In summary, vWF plays a vital role in platelet adhesion and aggregation in clot formation.

Role in Secondary Hemostasis

vWF also performs an important role in secondary hemostasis. Secondary hemostasis involves coagulation factors and the coagulation cascade to produce a fibrin meshwork at the site of vessel injury. vWF facilitates the secondary hemostasis process in two ways. First, vWF serves as a carrier protein for Factor VIII, extending Factor VIII’s half-life in the plasma. Although this may initially seem trivial, the vWF carrier activity stabilizes Factor VIII and significantly extends its half-life 4 to 6-fold. Second, it releases and concentrates Factor VIII at the site of injury. Factor VIII is a clotting factor that, when activated, complexes with other factors to ultimately produce fibrin. To highlight the significance of vWF in this process, mutations affecting the vWF binding site for Factor VIII leads to decreased levels of Factor VIII, known as Type 2N von Willebrand disease (vWD), resulting in a clinical presentation similar to hemophilia A, which is a bleeding disorder that occurs when an individual lacks the ability to produce adequate amounts of Factor VIII for proper clotting.

vWF, Inflammation, and Endothelial Activation/Injury

During the inflammatory process, various chemical mediators are released. These inflammatory molecules activate ECs to release their WPB contents, including vWF and other molecules such as P-selectin, which has been directly linked to leukocyte recruitment (2324). In addition, UL-vWF molecules that remain bound to EC surface will subsequently bind platelets and may have the ability to act as a molecular surface for leukocyte interaction (25). With increased release of vWF, the inflammatory process is expected to induce a prothrombotic state. Studies show that inflammation enhances vWF self-association, which may lead to increased adhesiveness of platelets while decreasing ADAMTS-13 cleavage (24). Additionally, high-density lipoprotein (HDL) decreases during inflammation in both chronic and acute phases. HDL may play a vital role in preventing shear stress-induced vWF self-association, thus decreasing prothrombotic risk under normal circumstances (24). This concept will become a point of discussion later in the review. In summary, the data indicate that during the inflammatory process there is an increased thrombotic risk due to the imbalance of increased vWF and activity levels via EC activation and reduced ADAMTS-13 activity.

Laboratory Testing of vWF

To understand the studies that will be mentioned in connection with CAC, it is important to briefly discuss basic vWF laboratory testing. There are 3 basic tests performed to assess vWF; the exact methods may vary between manufacturers for those that are highly automated but the fundamental parameters rest on testing vWF quantity, activity, and multimer size.

The quantity of the vWF level in a specimen is commonly referred to as antigenic testing (vWF:Ag). An immunoturbidimetric method is commonly used for vWF:Ag measurement. However, the details of the assays vary by manufacturer. This allows for quantitative determination of the physical presence of the molecule without assessment of function. ABO blood typing and Factor VIII levels are also performed concurrently; it is well documented that individuals of blood group O have physiologically lower levels of vWF, and therefore Factor VIII (since vWF binds and stabilizes it) levels are also slightly lower than individuals of non-O blood groups (see the “vWF Association with Blood Type” section).

The quality of present vWF is known as functional or activity testing; this involves testing the ability of vWF to bind to platelet receptor GPIb, collagen, and Factor VIII (vWF:RCo). There are a number of assays and methods that revolve around testing the ability of vWF to bind its natural physiologic substrates (with or without ristocetin). Depending on the substrate used to assess its binding function, these tests will often carry an acronym such as vWF:Ac, vWF:RCo, vWF:Co, or vWF:VIII. It is important to note that there are important and distinct differences amongst these tests; however, this is beyond the scope of the review.

Additionally, the qualitative variation of vWF multimers is performed to visualize the presence and size distribution of vWF located in the plasma using gel electrophoresis and vWF labeling. This assessment is important since multimer presence and size is directly correlated to the function and activity level of the vWF molecule.

Finally, although not a laboratory test, the results of the activity and antigenic assays may be juxtaposed to obtain the ratio of vWF activity to antigen (RCo:Ag ratio). A ratio that is less than 0.5–0.7 would indicate that a qualitative defect in the vWF molecules is likely and this helps categorize the pattern and subtypes of vWD, if present.

Examination of vWF in COVID-19 Associated Coagulopathy

Endothelial Activation and vWF

As a molecule present in ECs that plays a fundamental role in hemostasis and thrombosis, vWF is a reasonable candidate marker to consider when monitoring clinical issues related to endothelial injury and coagulopathy in COVID-19. Early studies duly noted that D-dimer levels were an important prognostic marker in COVID-19. However, studies also began to recognize and demonstrate that significantly elevated levels of vWF were also present (14161926). Further, studies then recognized that vWF activity is also increased and that ADAMTS-13 activity levels are relatively mild to moderately reduced, leading to an imbalance favoring thrombosis (2728). Similarly, in a well-recognized pathological entity, thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura (TTP) is associated with reduced activity levels of ADAMTS-13. TTP is generally due to an extremely hindered or absent ADAMTS-13 activity by either an acquired inhibitor or congenital absence. The decreased activity levels of ADAMTS-13 result in an excess of overactive UL-vWF multimers that promote microthrombi formation.

However, in contrast to TTP, the mild to moderately decreased ADAMTS-13 activity levels observed in CAC may not lead to excessive UL-vWF. Thus, it is important to distinguish that activity levels of ADAMTS-13 may not be low enough in CAC cases to detect an excessive increase in UL-vWF as seen in severe deficiency such as in TTP. In line with this, a recent study showed decreased activity levels of ADAMTS-13 in patients with severe COVID-19 but found no evidence of UL-vWF multimers in the plasma (29). Further, the authors of this study emphasized the significance of the elevated vWF:Ag to ADAMTS-13 activity ratio in association with increasing severity of disease. This suggests that an increased risk of thrombosis seen in patients with COVID-19 may, in part, be due to a relative decrease of ADAMTS-13 activity rather than an absolute decrease as seen in TTP.

The high levels of both vWF antigen and activity have been correlated clinically with increased thrombotic events (14), increased likelihood for treatment in ICUs (19), and increased need for oxygen support (26), as well as correlated with other laboratory testing such as decreased clotting times, increased clot formation velocities as demonstrated by whole blood viscoelastic testing (16) and increased levels of other markers of platelet and endothelial activation, such as Factor VIII and thrombomodulin (161926–2830). As new biomarkers to assess CAC severity emerge, reexamining the synthetic pathway of vWF may have some utility. One promising avenue is to examine levels of vWF propeptide; its physiologic role in the multimerization process would suggest that elevated levels of vWF propeptide indicate elevated vWF release. In addition, a greater level of increase in vWF and propeptide in comparison to an increase in Factor VIII suggest that this is due to release of vWF from pulmonary ECs involved in the COVID-19 pathophysiologic process (31). The ratio of propeptide levels to vWF levels can also examined; this ratio seems to decrease with disease progression suggesting that while the propeptide is cleared normally, levels of vWF may stay elevated due to decreased clearance (29). Further examination of propeptide levels in patients with COVID-19 are indicated to elucidate these possible relationships.

High-Density Lipoprotein and vWF

Aside from endothelial activation and injury, a more indirect mechanism may contribute to increased vWF activity levels. In general, infection leads to an inflammatory state and, as mentioned previously, this decreases HDL levels. Although most commonly known for its important role in preventing atherosclerotic disease, additional physiologic functions include activity as an antiinflammatory, antiapoptotic, and antioxidant agent. However, lesser-known roles include preventing thrombosis through binding to ECs to ramp up nitric oxide (a vasodilatory molecule) production and preventing shear stress-induced vWF self-association, thus decreasing prothrombotic risk (2432). Interestingly, a retrospective analysis of total cholesterol, LDL and HDL levels of patients in Changsha, China showed that HDL levels were lower in patients with COVID-19 than normal and patients with severe disease had lower HDL levels than patients with mild disease (33). Beyond the general infectious inflammatory state that may reduce HDL levels, a study showed that patients with COVID-19 had reduced apolipoprotein A1 (ApoA1) levels, which is a major protein component of HDL molecules (34). The study also showed that as patients went from nonsevere to severe disease, apolipoprotein decreased. Indeed, it has been shown, both in vivo and vitro models, that ApoA1 prevents vWF self-association and binding to vessel walls (32). Additional studies in the future could shed light on the role of HDL in CAC patients and possibly lead to novel treatment options.

vWF Association with Blood Type and COVID-19 Susceptibility

If increased levels of vWF can be monitored as a marker of endothelial damage and used to predict prognosis in patients with COVID-19, then decreased levels of vWF may be protective. One naturally existing population of patients who have baseline lower levels of vWF are patients of blood group O. Group O individuals naturally have a baseline level of vWF ∼25% less than the non-group O cohort (blood groups A and B). Although the exact molecular mechanism by which group O individuals have lower vWF levels is not fully elucidated, it has been hypothesized that perhaps theadditional glycosylation status, which occurs within ECs, by non-group O individuals prevents the activity of ADAMTS-13 to cleave vWF. This leads to reduced clearance and an increased half-life that is demonstrated by baseline higher levels of vWF when compared to group O individuals (31).

Initial data from China found a greater than expected proportion of group A and a smaller than expected proportion of group O individuals among patients with COVID-19. However, this involved a small cohort of patients with limited analysis due to lack of available clinical information (35). Following this, a genome-wide association study on patients in Italy and Spain also found group O individuals to have a lower relative risk than non-group O individuals (36). Another study showed a similar pattern of this phenomenon in a cohort of patients treated at the New York Presbyterian Hospital System (37). However, conflicting information is reported among these and other studies with some reporting no significant difference in severity and some reporting contradicting patterns in terms of need for mechanical ventilation. Preliminary data from these studies do potentially suggest that the lower vWF levels may be associated with decreased severity of disease in group O patients but more data is needed to clarify this relationship.


CAC is a significant contributor to patient morbidity and mortality. We highlight the role of vWF in CAC and compare and contrast it to the normal physiological response, mild and severe COVID-19 disease, and TTP (Fig. 1). Direct infection of ECs with SARS-CoV-2 and/or activation of ECs due to high levels of inflammatory mediators results in release of prothrombotic factors such as vWF. vWF, bound to the ECs or in plasma, promotes platelet aggregation and thrombus formation. It is likely that multiple mechanisms contribute to an imbalance of the vWF-ADAMTS-13 axis, pushing patients with CAC toward a more prothrombotic tendency. For example, in this review we discussed HDL and role it plays in reducing vWF activity, in which little discussion has been seen in other review articles of CAC and vWF. Nevertheless, the range of clinical presentation may be a reflection of the severity of this imbalance since reports show that though vWF is elevated in patients who are both critically ill and noncritically ill (19), there is a significant difference in vWF and ADAMTS-13 levels in patients who suffer thrombotic events versus those that do not (38). Multiple biomarkers, including vWF-associated proteins such as vWF propeptide and P-selectin, may help demonstrate the level of imbalance, as well as the mechanisms causing the imbalance. This would clarify the roles of therapies that would counter the actions of these prothrombotic molecules, whether by mitigating their release by reducing inflammation, such as N-acetylcysteine (39), or by inhibiting their activity once released or activated, such as caplacizumab (anti-vWF) or crizanlizumab (anti-P-selectin). Regardless, vWF has clearly demonstrated that it plays a role in the progression of CAC in patients with COVID-19, however, to what extent remains unclear. Further studies are needed to elucidate the many roles of vWF and the mechanism by which it becomes imbalanced.Fig. 1Proposed mechanism and distinguishing characteristics in mild and severe cases of COVID-19 associated coagulopathy and a comparison to a normal physiological response and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. (A), Normal physiological response to stress and or injury. After endothelial activation, vWF multimers are bound to the endothelial surface, ADAMTS-13 actively cleaves large multimers and HDL assists in the regulation of vWF self-association resulting in well-controlled thrombus formation during a physiologic response. (B), COVID-19 associated coagulopathy in mild disease. Localized infection and minimal systemic inflammation lead to a higher level of endothelial cell activation. Regardless, in this scenario, infection and inflammation remains fairly well regulated. Furthermore, the HDL and ADAMTS-13 mechanisms are mostly intact, leading to only a slight increase of pathologic thrombotic events. (C), COVID-19 associated coagulopathy in severe disease. Infection and or inflammation becomes overwhelmingly dysregulated, leading to an extremely elevated level of endothelial activation. Additionally, both HDL and ADAMTS-13 levels are decreased, leading to a much higher increase risk of pathologic thrombotic events. (D), Thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura (TTP). In TTP, ADAMTS-13 activity levels are significantly lower than observed in COVID-19 coagulopathy. TTP leads to increased levels of ultralarge and large multimers of vWF. Subsequently, there are increased levels of platelet binding, which leads to highly increased thrombotic risk.Open in new tabDownload slide

Proposed mechanism and distinguishing characteristics in mild and severe cases of COVID-19 associated coagulopathy and a comparison to a normal physiological response and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. (A), Normal physiological response to stress and or injury. After endothelial activation, vWF multimers are bound to the endothelial surface, ADAMTS-13 actively cleaves large multimers and HDL assists in the regulation of vWF self-association resulting in well-controlled thrombus formation during a physiologic response. (B), COVID-19 associated coagulopathy in mild disease. Localized infection and minimal systemic inflammation lead to a higher level of endothelial cell activation. Regardless, in this scenario, infection and inflammation remains fairly well regulated. Furthermore, the HDL and ADAMTS-13 mechanisms are mostly intact, leading to only a slight increase of pathologic thrombotic events. (C), COVID-19 associated coagulopathy in severe disease. Infection and or inflammation becomes overwhelmingly dysregulated, leading to an extremely elevated level of endothelial activation. Additionally, both HDL and ADAMTS-13 levels are decreased, leading to a much higher increase risk of pathologic thrombotic events. (D), Thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura (TTP). In TTP, ADAMTS-13 activity levels are significantly lower than observed in COVID-19 coagulopathy. TTP leads to increased levels of ultralarge and large multimers of vWF. Subsequently, there are increased levels of platelet binding, which leads to highly increased thrombotic risk.

Proposed mechanism and distinguishing characteristics in mild and severe cases of COVID-19 associated coagulopathy and a comparison to a normal physiological response and thrombotic thrombocytopenic purpura. (A), Normal physiological response to stress and or injury. After endothelial activation, vWF multimers are bound to the endothelial surface, ADAMTS-13 actively cleaves large multimers and HDL assists in the regulation of vWF self-association resulting in well-controlled thrombus formation during a physiologic response. (B), COVID-19 associated coagulopathy in mild disease. Localized infection and minimal systemic inflammation lead to a higher level of endothelial cell activation. Regardless, in this scenario, infection and inflammation remains fairly well regulated. Furthermore, the HDL and ADAMTS-13 mechanisms are mostly intact, leading to only a slight increase of pathologic thrombotic events. (C), COVID-19 associated coagulopathy in severe disease. Infection and or inflammation becomes overwhelmingly dysregulated, leading to an extremely elevated level of endothelial activation. Additionally, both HDL and ADAMTS-13 levels are decreased, leading to a much higher increase risk of pathologic thrombotic events. (D), Thrombotic thrombocytopenia purpura (TTP). In TTP, ADAMTS-13 activity levels are significantly lower than observed in COVID-19 coagulopathy. TTP leads to increased levels of ultralarge and large multimers of vWF. Subsequently, there are increased levels of platelet binding, which leads to highly increased thrombotic risk.

Author Contributions

All authors confirmed they have contributed to the intellectual content of this paper and have met the following 4 requirements: (a) significant contributions to the conception and design, acquisition of data, or analysis and interpretation of data; (b) drafting or revising the article for intellectual content; (c) final approval of the published article; and(d) agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the article thus ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the article are appropriately investigated and resolved.

Authors’ Disclosures or Potential Conflicts of Interest:Upon manuscript submission, all authors completed the author disclosure form. Disclosures and/or potential conflicts of interest:Employment or Leadership: H.P. Pham, University of Southern California. Consultant or Advisory Role: H.P. Pham, Sanofi Genzyme. Stock Ownership: None declared. Honoraria: H.P. Pham, Alexion. Research Funding: None declared. Expert Testimony: None declared. Patents: None declared.


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Better Anticoagulated Than Not! Hypercoagulability in COVID-19

Authors: Dhauna P. Karam, MD1

Incidence of thrombotic complications in patients with COVID-19 who are critically ill is high, with an estimated incidence of 31% for arterial or venous thromboembolism (VTE), acute pulmonary embolism, ischemic stroke, and myocardial infarction. On the basis of the study by Klok et al,1 pulmonary embolism was the most common thrombotic complication in critically ill patients with COVID-19 despite being on standard anticoagulation. Prevention of thromboembolism with anticoagulants is recommended in all critically ill patients with COVID-19.

The American Society of Hematology (ASH) guideline panel (updated April 7, 2021) recommends prophylactic anticoagulation in all critically ill patients with COVID-19 without suspected or confirmed venous thromboembolism (VTE). ASH defines patients with COVID-19 critical illness as someone who is suffering from a life-threatening condition, typically admitted in an intensive care unit. It is recommended that individualized assessment of the patient’s thrombotic and bleeding risk needs to be performed before deciding on anticoagulation.2 What about hospitalized patients with COVID-19 who are not critically ill? What are some clinical parameters that can be used to guide decisions on anticoagulant use in such patients?

The accompanying manuscript by Gaddh et al3 reports guidelines used in a large academic institution, Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, Georgia, to determine anticoagulation in hospitalized patients with COVID-19. The guidelines were created by a multidisciplinary panel of experts and were incorporated into frontline care at Emory. The three-tiered algorithm was used to risk stratify patients admitted with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19. It was not recommended for use in patients incidentally found to have COVID-19 during hospitalization for other causes. On the basis of the guidelines, patients with normal D-dimer, no evidence of thromboembolism and not critically ill were given prophylactic anticoagulation (group 1). Patients with elevated D-dimer (> 6 times upper limit normal) with no evidence of thromboembolism and not critically ill were given intermediate-dose anticoagulation. Patients critically ill without any evidence of thromboembolism and without elevation of D-dimer were also given intermediate-dose anticoagulation. Patients with confirmed thromboembolism or those with other markers of possible thromboembolism (worsening hypoxia or pulmonary status without identifiable cause and limb edema) received therapeutic anticoagulation. Anticoagulation was continued for 1 week after discharge in group 1 patients. Group 2 received anticoagulation for 4-6 weeks after discharge. Finally, group 3 received anticoagulation for minimum 3 months postdischarge. Preliminary findings revealed low bleeding complications. Data on type of anticoagulant used, incidence of thromboembolism in the hospitalized group following the above guidelines, and improvement in morbidity and mortality rates were not provided. The algorithm is a simple, practical statement, which can guide frontline caregivers until evidence-based recommendations become available. Group 1 and 3 recommendations are supported by major organizational guidelines such as ASH and International Society on Thrombosis and Haemostasis (ISTH). Preliminary guidelines from these organizations refrain from commenting strongly on intermediate-dose anticoagulation in the absence of supporting data from clinical trials but do support anticoagulant dose escalation on the basis of clinician’s assessment for high-risk patients.2,4

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The Impact of COVID-19 Disease on Platelets and Coagulation

Authors: Geoffrey D Wool 1Jonathan L Miller 2


Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) causes a spectrum of disease; some patients develop a severe proinflammatory state which can be associated with a unique coagulopathy and procoagulant endothelial phenotype. Initially, COVID-19 infection produces a prominent elevation of fibrinogen and D-dimer/fibrin(ogen) degradation products. This is associated with systemic hypercoagulability and frequent venous thromboembolic events. The degree of D-dimer elevation positively correlates with mortality in COVID-19 patients. COVID-19 also leads to arterial thrombotic events (including strokes and ischemic limbs) as well as microvascular thrombotic disorders (as frequently documented at autopsy in the pulmonary vascular beds). COVID-19 patients often have mild thrombocytopenia and appear to have increased platelet consumption, together with a corresponding increase in platelet production. Disseminated intravascular coagulopathy (DIC) and severe bleeding events are uncommon in COVID-19 patients. Here, we review the current state of knowledge of COVID-19 and hemostasis.

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Direct activation of the alternative complement pathway by SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins is blocked by factor D inhibition

Authors: Jia YuXuan YuanHang ChenShruti ChaturvediEvan M. BraunsteinRobert A. Brodsky

Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a highly contagious respiratory virus that can lead to venous/arterial thrombosis, stroke, renal failure, myocardial infarction, thrombocytopenia, and other end-organ damage. Animal models demonstrating end-organ protection in C3-deficient mice and evidence of complement activation in humans have led to the hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 triggers complement-mediated endothelial damage, but the mechanism is unclear. Here, we demonstrate that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein (subunit 1 and 2), but not the N protein, directly activates the alternative pathway of complement (APC). Complement-dependent killing using the modified Ham test is blocked by either C5 or factor D inhibition. C3 fragments and C5b-9 are deposited on TF1PIGAnull target cells, and complement factor Bb is increased in the supernatant from spike protein–treated cells. C5 inhibition prevents the accumulation of C5b-9 on cells, but not C3c; however, factor D inhibition prevents both C3c and C5b-9 accumulation. Addition of factor H mitigates the complement attack. In conclusion, SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins convert nonactivator surfaces to activator surfaces by preventing the inactivation of the cell-surface APC convertase. APC activation may explain many of the clinical manifestations (microangiopathy, thrombocytopenia, renal injury, and thrombophilia) of COVID-19 that are also observed in other complement-driven diseases such as atypical hemolytic uremic syndrome and catastrophic antiphospholipid antibody syndrome. C5 inhibition prevents accumulation of C5b-9 in vitro but does not prevent upstream complement activation in response to SARS-CoV-2 spike proteins.

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What Is the D-Dimer Test?

Authors: Richard N. Fogoros, MD

The D-dimer test is a blood test that indicates whether blood clots are being actively formed somewhere within a person’s vascular system. This test is most often helpful in the diagnosis of pulmonary embolus and deep vein thrombosis, but it can also be useful in diagnosing other medical conditions in which blood clots play a role.

However, there are limitations to the D-dimer test, and it can be tricky to evaluate the results. In order to avoid being misled by it, doctors need to make sure they are using this test at the appropriate times and must take due care in interpreting the results.

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Never ignore extremely elevated D-dimer levels: they are specific for serious illness

Authors: T Schutte 1A ThijsY M Smulders

D-dimer is routinely measured as part of the clinical diagnosis algorithms for venous thromboembolism (VTE). In these algorithms, low D- dimer cut-off values are used to generate a dichotomous test result that is sensitive, but very non-specific for VTE. A consequence of any test dichotomisation is loss of information that is hidden in the continuous spectrum of results. For D-dimer, the information conveyed by extremely elevated results may be particularly relevant. Our aim was to assess the differential diagnosis of extremely elevated D-dimer levels in a hospital setting.

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