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Sex differences in the immune response to acute COVID-19 respiratory tract infection

  • Qi, Shaohua1
  • Ngwa, Conelius1
  • Morales Scheihing, Diego A.1
  • Al Mamun, Abdullah1
  • Ahnstedt, Hilda W.1
  • Finger, Carson E.1
  • Colpo, Gabriela Delevati1
  • Sharmeen, Romana1
  • Kim, Youngran1
  • Choi, HuiMahn A.1
  • McCullough, Louise D.1
  • Liu, Fudong1
  • 1 The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, 6431 Fannin Street, Houston, TX, 77030, USA , Houston (United States)
Published Article
Biology of Sex Differences
BioMed Central
Publication Date
Dec 20, 2021
DOI: 10.1186/s13293-021-00410-2
Springer Nature
  • Research


BackgroundSex differences in COVID-19 are increasingly recognized globally. Although infection rates are similar between the sexes, men have more severe illness. The mechanism underlying these sex differences is unknown, but a differential immune response to COVID-19 has been implicated in several recent studies. However, how sex differences shape the immune response to COVID-19 remains understudied.MethodsWe collected demographics and blood samples from over 600 hospitalized patients diagnosed with COVID-19 from May 24th 2020 to April 28th, 2021. These patients were divided into two cohorts: Cohort 1 was further classified into three groups based on the severity of the disease (mild, moderate and severe); Cohort 2 patients were longitudinally followed at three time points from hospital admission (1 day, 7 days, and 14 days). MultiPlex and conventional ELISA were used to examine inflammatory mediator levels in the plasma in both cohorts. Flow cytometry was conducted to examine leukocyte responses in Cohort 2.ResultsThere were more COVID+ males in the total cohort, and the mortality rate was higher in males vs. females. More male patients were seen in most age groups (in 10-year increments), and in most ethnic groups. Males with severe disease had significantly higher levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-6, IL-8, MCP-1) than females; levels of IL-8, GRO, sCD40L, MIP-1β, MCP-1 were also significantly higher in severe vs. mild or control patients in males but not in females. Females had significantly higher anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 levels at 14 days compared to males, and the level of IL-10 significantly increased in moderate vs. the control group in females but not in males. At 7 days and 14 days, males had significantly more circulating neutrophils and monocytes than females; however, B cell numbers were significantly higher in females vs. males.ConclusionSex differences exist in hospitalized patients with acute COVID-19 respiratory tract infection. Exacerbated inflammatory responses were seen in male vs. female patients, even when matched for disease severity. Males appear to have a more robust innate immune response, and females mount a stronger adaptive immune response to COVID-19 respiratory tract infection.

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