COVID-19: Gastrointestinal Manifestations and Potential Fecal-Oral Transmission
To date, molecular modelling has revealed by the next-generation sequencing technology that 2019-nCoV shares about 79% sequence identify with SARS-CoV, indicative of these 2 lineage B β-coronaviruses highly homologous, and angiotensin-converting enzyme II (ACE2), previously known as an entry receptor for SARS-CoV, was exclusively confirmed in 2019-nCoV infection despite amino acid mutations at some key receptor-binding domains.5 , 6 It is widely accepted that coronavirus human transmissibility and pathogenesis mainly depend on the interactions, including virus attachment, receptor recognition, protease cleaving and membrane fusion, of its transmembrane spike glycoprotein (S-protein) receptor-binding domain, specific cell receptors (ACE2), and host cellular transmembrane serine protease (TMPRSS), with binding affinity of 2019-nCoV about 73% of SARS-CoV.7 Recent bioinformatics analysis on available single-cell transcriptomes data of normal human lung and gastrointestinal system was carried out to identify the ACE2-expressing cell composition and proportion, and revealed that ACE2 was not only highly expressed in the lung AT2 cells, but also in esophagus upper and stratified epithelial cells and absorptive enterocytes from ileum and colon.8 With the increasing gastrointestinal wall permeability to foreign pathogens once virus infected, enteric symptoms like diarrhea will occur by the invaded enterocytes malabsorption, which in theory indicated the digestive system might be vulnerable to COVID-19 infection. In contrast, because ACE2 and TMPRSS especially TMPRSS2 are co-localized in the same host cells and the latter exerts hydrolytic effects responsible for S-protein priming and viral entry into target cells, further bioinformatics investigation renders additional evidence for enteric infectivity of COVID-19 in that the high co-expression ratio was found in absorptive enterocytes and upper epithelial cells of esophagus besides lung AT2 cells. However, the exact mechanism of COVID-19–induced gastrointestinal symptom largely remains elusive. Based on these considerations, ACE2-based strategies against COVID-19 such as ACE2 fusion proteins and TMPRSS2 inhibitors should be accelerated into clinical research and development for diagnosis, prophylaxis, or treatment.
Last, mild to moderate liver injury, including elevated aminotransferases, hypoproteinemia, and prothrombin time prolongation, has been reported in the existing clinical investigations of COVID-19, whereas up to 60% of patients suffering from SARS had liver impairment. The presence of viral nucleic acids of SARS in liver tissue confirmed the coronavirus direct infection in liver, and percutaneous liver biopsies of SARS showed conspicuous mitoses and apoptosis along with atypical features such as acidophilic bodies, ballooning of hepatocytes, and lobular activities without fibrin deposition or fibrosis.9 It is believed that SARS-associated hepatotoxicity may be likely with viral hepatitis or a secondary effect associated with drug toxicity owing to high-dose consumption of antiviral medications, antibiotics, and steroids, as well as immune system overreaction. However, little is known about 2019-nCoV infection in liver. Surprisingly, recent single cell RNA sequencing data from 2 independent cohorts revealed a significant enrichment of ACE2 expression in cholangiocytes (59.7% of cells) instead of hepatocytes (2.6% of cells), suggesting that 2019-nCoV might lead to direct damage to the intrahepatic bile ducts.10 Altogether, substantial effort should be made to be alert on the initial digestive symptoms of COVID-19 for early detection, early diagnosis, early isolation, and early intervention.
Gastroenterology . 2020 May;158(6):1518-1519. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2020.02.054. Epub 2020 Mar 3.