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A COVID-19-association-dependent categorization of death causes in 100 autopsy cases
GeroScience  (IF7.713),  Pub Date : 2021-09-11, DOI: 10.1007/s11357-021-00451-w
Danics, Krisztina, Pesti, Adrián, Törő, Klára, Kiss-Dala, Noémi, Szlávik, János, Lakatos, Botond, Radnai, Andrea, Balázs, Tamás, Bacskai, Miklós, Dobi, Deján, Várkonyi, Tibor, Glasz, Tibor, Lotz, Gábor, Kiss, András, Schaff, Zsuzsa, Vályi-Nagy, István

From March through December 2020, 100 autopsies were performed (Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary), with chart review, of patients with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection demonstrated by real-time reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction testing (mean age, 74.73 years, range 40–102 years; 50 males, mean age 71.96 years, and 50 females, mean age 77.5 years). Classified by the date of death, 21 cases were from the pandemic’s “first wave” (March through July) and 79 from the “second wave” (August through December). Three mortality categories were defined by relevance of SARS-CoV-2 infection: (1) “strong” association (n=57), in which COVID-19 was primary responsible for death; (2) “contributive” association (n=27), in which a pre-existing condition independent of COVID-19 was primary responsible for death, albeit with substantial COVID-19 co-morbidity; (3) “weak” association (n=16), in which COVID-19 was minimally or not at all responsible for death. Distributions among categories differed between the first wave, in which the “contributive” association cases dominated (strong: 24%, contributive: 48%, weak: 28%), and the second wave, in which the “strong” association cases dominated (strong: 66%, contributive: 21%, weak: 13%). Charted co-morbidities included hypertension (85 %), cardiovascular diseases (71 %), diabetes (40 %), cerebrovascular diseases (31 %), chronic respiratory diseases (30 %), malignant tumors (20 %), renal diseases (19 %), diseases of the central nervous system (15 %), and liver diseases (6 %). Autopsy evaluation analyzed alterations on macroscopy as well as findings on microscopy of scanned and scored sections of formalin-fixed, paraffin-embedded tissue samples (50–80 blocks/case). Severity of histological abnormalities in the lung differed significantly between “strong” and “contributive” (p<0.0001) and between “strong” and “weak” categories (p<0.0001). Abnormalities included diffuse alveolar damage, macrophage infiltration, and vascular and alveolar fibrin aggregates (lung), with macro- and microvascular thrombi and thromboemboli (lung, kidney, liver). In conclusion, autopsies clarified in what extent COVID-19 was responsible for death, demonstrated the pathological background of clinical signs and symptoms, and identified organ alterations that led to the death. Clinicopathologic correlation, with conference discussions of severity of co-morbidities and of direct pathological signs of disease, permitted accurate categorization of cause of death and COVID-19 association as “strong,” “contributive,” or “weak.” Lung involvement, with reduced ventilatory capacity, was the primary cause of death in the “strong” and “contributive” categories. Shifts in distribution among categories, with “strong” association between COVID-19 and death dominating in the second wave, may reflect improved clinical management of COVID-19 as expertise grew.