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This research has not been peer-reviewed, and has been posted on pre-print repository medRxiv. This is a preliminary report that should not be regarded as conclusive, guide clinical practice/health-related behaviour, or be reported in news media as established information.
Severe COVID-19 is linked to both dysfunctional immune response and unrestrained immunopathogenesis, and it remains unclear if T cells also contribute to disease pathology. Here, we combined single-cell transcriptomics and proteomics with mechanistic studies to assess pathogenic T cell functions and inducing signals. We identified highly activated, CD16+ T cells with increased cytotoxic functions in severe COVID-19. CD16 expression enabled immune complex-mediated, T cell receptor-independent degranulation and cytotoxicity not found in other diseases. CD16+ T cells from COVID-19 patients promoted microvascular endothelial cell injury and release of neutrophil and monocyte chemoattractants. CD16+ T cell clones persisted beyond acute disease maintaining their cytotoxic phenotype. Age-dependent generation of C3a in severe COVID-19 induced activated CD16+ cytotoxic T cells. The proportion of activated CD16+ T cells and plasma levels of complement proteins upstream of C3a correlated with clinical outcome of COVID-19, supporting a pathological role of exacerbated cytotoxicity and complement activation in COVID-19.