Contributing to research themes:
Prominent early features of COVID-19 include severe, often clinically silent, hypoxia and a pronounced reduction in B cells, the latter important in defence against SARS-CoV-2. This presentation resembles the phenotype of mice with VHL-deficient B cells, in which Hypoxia-Inducible Factors are constitutively active, suggesting hypoxia might drive B cell abnormalities in COVID-19.
Detailed B cell phenotyping was undertaken by flow-cytometry on longitudinal samples from patients with COVID-19 across a range of severities (NIHR Cambridge BioResource). The impact of hypoxia on the transcriptome was assessed by single-cell and whole blood RNA sequencing analysis. The direct effect of hypoxia on B cells was determined through immunisation studies in genetically modified and hypoxia-exposed mice.
We demonstrate the breadth of early and persistent defects in B cell subsets in moderate/severe COVID-19, including reduced marginal zone-like, memory and transitional B cells, changes also observed in B cell VHL-deficient mice. These findings were associated with hypoxia-related transcriptional changes in COVID-19 patient B cells, and similar B cell abnormalities were seen in mice kept in hypoxic conditions.
Hypoxia may contribute to the pronounced and persistent B cell pathology observed in acute COVID-19 pneumonia. Assessment of the impact of early oxygen therapy on these immune defects should be considered, as their correction could contribute to improved outcomes.