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Severe Covid-19: autoantibodies attacking their own tissue

Published Oct 26, 2020


CAPE TOWN- A recent study has found that severe Covid-19 infection could be linked to the presence of autoantibodies which instead of targeting the virus, it targets the tissues of individuals with the virus.

When a virus first enters the body and infects cells, the immune system deploys short-lived plasma cells that produce antibodies to immediately fight the virus.

Autoantibodies are antibodies that mistakenly target and react with a person's own tissues or organs. Usually the immune system is able to discriminate between foreign substances such as a virus and the body’s own cells. When it cannot recognize one or more of the body's normal constituents it may produce autoantibodies that react with its own cells, tissues, and/or organs. This may cause inflammation, damage, or it may lead to signs and symptoms of autoimmune disorders.

Immunologist from the Lowance Center for Human Immunology at Emory University, Matthew Woodruff, has focused his work on investigating the immune response responsible for producing antibodies in Covid-19. In an article published in

The Conversation, Woodruff said that findings from his recent study could have a large potential impact on both acute patient care and infection recovery.

"Of great concern has been the sporadic identification of so-called autoreactive antibodies that, instead of targeting disease causing microbes, target the tissues of individuals suffering from severe cases of Covid-19," he said.


The study analyzed the medical charts of 52 patients in intensive care who were diagnosed with Covid-19. None of them had a history of autoimmune disorders. However, they were tested during infection for autoantibodies found in a variety of disorders.

More than half of the patients tested positive for autoantibodies. In patients with the highest levels of inflammation in the blood, more than two-thirds displayed evidence that their immune system was producing antibodies attacking their own tissue.

Woodruff said that while these findings could raise concerns, it remains unclear as to what extent these autoantibodies contribute to the most severe symptoms of Covid-19 and how long the autoantibodies last.

"Most concerning, it is possible that these responses could self-perpetuate in some patients, resulting in the emergence of new, permanent autoimmune disorders. My colleagues and I sincerely hope that this is not the case – rather, that the emergence of autoantibodies in these patients is a red herring, a quirk of a viral immune response in some patients that will resolve on its own," said Woodruff.

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