Review Article

Endothelial dysfunction in COVID-19: an overview of evidence, biomarkers, mechanisms and potential therapies

Suo-wen Xu1, Iqra Ilyas1, Jian-ping Weng1
1 Department of Endocrinology, Institute of Endocrine and Metabolic Diseases, The First Affiliated Hospital of USTC, Division of Life Sciences and Medicine, Clinical Research Hospital of Chinese Academy of Sciences (Hefei), University of Science and Technology of China, Hefei 230001, China
Correspondence to: Suo-wen Xu:, Jian-ping Weng:,
DOI: 10.1038/s41401-022-00998-0
Received: 26 June 2022
Accepted: 11 September 2022
Advance online: 17 October 2022


The fight against coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) caused by SARS-CoV-2 infection is still raging. However, the pathophysiology of acute and post-acute manifestations of COVID-19 (long COVID-19) is understudied. Endothelial cells are sentinels lining the innermost layer of blood vessel that gatekeep micro- and macro-vascular health by sensing pathogen/danger signals and secreting vasoactive molecules. SARS-CoV-2 infection primarily affects the pulmonary system, but accumulating evidence suggests that it also affects the pan-vasculature in the extrapulmonary systems by directly (via virus infection) or indirectly (via cytokine storm), causing endothelial dysfunction (endotheliitis, endothelialitis and endotheliopathy) and multi-organ injury. Mounting evidence suggests that SARS-CoV-2 infection leads to multiple instances of endothelial dysfunction, including reduced nitric oxide (NO) bioavailability, oxidative stress, endothelial injury, glycocalyx/barrier disruption, hyperpermeability, inflammation/leukocyte adhesion, senescence, endothelial-to-mesenchymal transition (EndoMT), hypercoagulability, thrombosis and many others. Thus, COVID-19 is deemed as a (micro)vascular and endothelial disease. Of translational relevance, several candidate drugs which are endothelial protective have been shown to improve clinical manifestations of COVID-19 patients. The purpose of this review is to provide a latest summary of biomarkers associated with endothelial cell activation in COVID-19 and offer mechanistic insights into the molecular basis of endothelial activation/dysfunction in macro- and micro-vasculature of COVID-19 patients. We envisage further development of cellular models and suitable animal models mimicking endothelial dysfunction aspect of COVID-19 being able to accelerate the discovery of new drugs targeting endothelial dysfunction in pan-vasculature from COVID-19 patients.
Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; endothelial dysfunction; endothelialitis; endotheliitis

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