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


Children have reduced severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) infection rates and a substantially lower risk for developing severe coronavirus disease 2019 compared with 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 (n = 24) children and corresponding samples from adults (n = 44), covering an age range of 4 weeks to 77 years. Children displayed higher basal expression of relevant pattern recognition receptors 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 in 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 response to SARS-CoV-2 infection than in adults.

Journal details

Volume 40
Issue number 3
Pages 319-324
Available online
Publication date