Severe COVID-19 and aging: are monocytes the key?


The ongoing pandemic severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2) causes a disproportionate number of severe cases and deaths in older adults. Severe SARS-CoV-2-associated disease (coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)) was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization in March 2020 and is characterized by cytokine storm, acute respiratory distress syndrome, and in some cases by systemic inflammation–related pathology. Currently, our knowledge of the determinants of severe COVID-19 is primarily observational. Here, I review emerging evidence to argue that monocytes, a circulating innate immune cell, are principal players in cytokine storm and associated pathologies in COVID-19. I also describe changes in monocyte function and phenotype that are characteristic of both aging and severe COVID-19, which suggests a potential mechanism underlying increased morbidity and mortality due to SARS-CoV-2 infection in older adults. The innate immune system is therefore a potentially important target for therapeutic treatment of COVID-19, but experimental studies are needed, and SARS-CoV-2 presents unique challenges for pre-clinical and mechanistic studies in vivo. The immediate establishment of colonies of SARS-CoV-2-susceptible animal models for aging studies, as well as strong collaborative efforts in the geroscience community, will be required in order to develop the therapies needed to combat severe COVID-19 in older adult populations.

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