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Pre-activated anti-viral innate immunity in the upper airways controls early SARS-CoV-2 infection in children

Children have reduced SARS-CoV-2 infection rates and a substantially lower risk for developing severe COVID-19 than adults. However, the molecular mechanisms underlying protection in younger age groups remain unknown. Here, we characterize the single-cell transcriptional landscape in the upper airways of SARS-CoV-2-negative (n=18) and age-matched SARS-CoV-2–positive children (n=24) and corresponding samples from adults (n=44), covering an age range of four weeks to 77 years. Children displayed higher basal expression of the relevant pattern recognition receptors (PRR) such as MDA5 (IFIH1) and RIG-I (DDX58) in upper airway epithelial cells, macrophages, and dendritic cells, resulting in stronger innate antiviral responses upon SARS-CoV-2 infection than adults. We further detected distinct immune cell subpopulations including KLRC1 (NKG2A)+ cytotoxic T cells and a CD8+ T cell population with a memory phenotype occurring predominantly in children. Our study provides evidence that the airway immune cells of children are primed for virus sensing, resulting in a stronger early innate antiviral responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection than adults.

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Dataset ID Description Technology Samples
EGAD00001007969 Illumina NovaSeq 6000 86
Publications Citations
ELF5 is a potential respiratory epithelial cell-specific risk gene for severe COVID-19.
Nat Commun 13: 2022 4484