Scientists find that elevated neutrophils can predict severe COVID and death

predict severe covid, blood
© Darren Baker

Researchers at Yale believe that blood tests could predict severe COVID cases and death itself, because blood contains biological signals that are now showing a pattern

When people get into hospital with COVID, there is a tenseness about them. Will they become a critical case? Will they become a fatality? Healthcare staff are pushing to their limits to make sure that patients are given appropriate care – but what if there was a way to predict who was going to need it?

In a separate study, diabetes was found to be a potential omen for hospitalisation or death. In another, scientists pin down COVID fatality to a specific set of genes.

However, the first study only directs attention to a whole swathe of the population with diabetes and the second provides some interesting genomic research directions – but no pragmatic way to figure out who will get hit hard by the virus.

Now, a research team based at Yale propose that regular blood tests could be used to predict severe COVID or fatality in a patient.

How biological signals in the blood can tell all

In this new study, the team report that a series of biomarkers, or biological signals, associated with white blood cell activation and obesity can predict severe outcomes in COVID-19 patients.

Dr Hyung Chun, lead author and associate professor of medicine in cardiovascular medicine and pathology, said: “Patients with high levels of these markers were much more like to require care in the intensive care unit, require ventilation, or die due to their COVID-19.”

A type of white blood cell signifies future issues

The team used proteomic profiling on 100 patients, on their first day of being in hospital. They also had access to data from 3,000 patients who attended Yale New Haven Hospital.

They found that five proteins (resistin, lipocalin-2, HGF, IL-8, and G-CSF) that are associated with neutrophils, a type of white blood cell, were elevated in patients who later became severely ill.

Neutrophils are inflammatory cells, which elevate during obesity and also during the hyper-inflammation of COVID-19 on tissue cells in the body.

Incredibly, elevated neutrophil levels were present before symptoms of severe COVID even arrived.

All the COVID-19 patients in the ICU had elevated neutrophil markers, while these biomarkers remained low for patients who never developed severe illness.

Patients with lower levels of this white blood cell stayed alive

Dr Chun further commented: “If a diagnostic test could be ordered early, it could give us a better sense of who is more likely to become critically ill and will benefit from a higher level of care and consideration for therapies that affect the immune system early on in their hospitalization.

“Many of these drugs do carry potential side effects, and these tests may help identify those patients who would benefit the most.

“We are hoping these findings motivate other groups to look at their own patient populations.”


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