COVID-19 and Autoimmune Diseases

Yu Liu; Amr H. Sawalha; Qianjin Lu


Curr Opin Rheumatol. 2021;33(2):155-162. 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Purpose of Review: The aim of this study was to evaluate the relationship between infection with SARS-CoV-2 and autoimmunity.

Recent Findings: Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an infectious disease caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) associated coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). Although most of the infected individuals are asymptomatic, a proportion of patients with COVID-19 develop severe disease with multiple organ injuries. Evidence suggests that some medications used to treat autoimmune rheumatologic diseases might have therapeutic effect in patients with severe COVID-19 infections, drawing attention to the relationship between COVID-19 and autoimmune diseases. COVID-19 shares similarities with autoimmune diseases in clinical manifestations, immune responses and pathogenic mechanisms. Robust immune reactions participate in the pathogenesis of both disease conditions. Autoantibodies as a hallmark of autoimmune diseases can also be detected in COVID-19 patients. Moreover, some patients have been reported to develop autoimmune diseases, such as Guillain--Barré syndrome or systemic lupus erythematosus, after COVID-19 infection. It is speculated that SARS-CoV-2 can disturb self-tolerance and trigger autoimmune responses through cross-reactivity with host cells. The infection risk and prognosis of COVID-19 in patients with autoimmune diseases remains controversial, but patient adherence to medication regimens to prevent autoimmune disease flares is strongly recommended.

Summary: We present a review of the association between COVID-19 and autoimmune diseases, focusing on similarities in immune responses, cross-reactivity of SARS-CoV-2, the development of autoimmune diseases in COVID-19 patients and the risk of COVID-19 infection in patients with preexisting autoimmune conditions.


Since December 2019, a novel infection named coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) broke out in Wuhan, China, and has been sweeping across the globe. COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic by WHO on 11 March 2020.[1] The disease is caused by a newly identified strain of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) associated coronavirus, which was named SARS-CoV-2 after SARS-CoV that caused the epidemic of SARS in 2002.[2]

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to the coronavirus family, which are enveloped viruses with a spherical morphology and a single-stranded RNA (ssRNA) genome.[3] The spike glycoproteins (S protein) cross through the peplos of the virus and form a crown-like surface.[4] Through the receptor binding domain (RBD) located in the S1 subunit of the S protein, the virus can ligate to the host cell receptor angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) and invade into the cell.[5–7]

In many cases, hosts infected by SARS-CoV-2 present with flu-like symptoms, such as fever, fatigue and dry cough. Headache, myalgia, sore throat, nausea and diarrhoea can also be seen in patients with COVID-19.[8,9] Shortness of breath and hypoxemia occur in severe cases. In critical cases, the disease progresses rapidly and patients can develop septic shock and multiorgan dysfunction.[10] As such, COVID-19 can be a systemic disease affecting multiple organ systems, including the skin, kidneys, respiratory system, cardiovascular system, digestive system, nervous system and haematological system.[11] The dysregulated immune response and increased pro-inflammatory cytokines induced by SARS-CoV-2 contribute to the disease pathogenesis and organ damage, which brought attention to immune-regulatory therapy in the treatment of COVID-19.[12] Medications used to treat autoimmune diseases are widely used in critical cases of COVID-19.[13] Further, some autoantibodies can be detected in patients with COVID-19.[14] These observations suggest that examining pathways known to contribute to the pathogenesis of autoimmunity might provide clues to better understand and treat COVID-19.