Understanding innate immune responses in COVID-19 is important for deciphering mechanisms of host responses and interpreting disease pathogenesis. Natural killer (NK) cells are innate effector lymphocytes that respond to acute viral infections, but might also contribute to immune pathology. Here, using 28-color flow cytometry, we describe a state of strong NK cell activation across distinct subsets in peripheral blood of COVID-19 patients, a pattern mirrored in scRNA-seq signatures of lung NK cells. Unsupervised high-dimensional analysis identified distinct immunophenotypes that were linked to disease severity. Hallmarks of these immunophenotypes were high expression of perforin, NKG2C, and Ksp37, reflecting a high presence of adaptive NK cell expansions in circulation of patients with severe disease. Finally, arming of CD56bright NK cells was observed in course of COVID-19 disease states, driven by a defined protein-protein interaction network of inflammatory soluble factors. This provides a detailed map of the NK cell activation-landscape in COVID-19 disease.
medrxiv Subject Collection: Infectious Diseases