While lymphocytopenia is a common characteristic of patients infected by the novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the mechanisms responsible for this depletion are unclear. Through careful inspection of the spleens and lymph nodes (LNs) from six cases with postmortem examinations, we observed that SARS-CoV-2 could directly infect secondary lymphoid organs to induce cell death. Immunohistochemistry demonstrated ACE2 (angiotensin-converting enzyme 2), the potential receptor of SARS-CoV-2, expresses on tissue-resident CD169+ macrophages in spleens and LNs. Immunofluorescent staining confirmed that viral nucleocaspid protein (NP) can be found in ACE2+ cells, CD169+ macrophages, but not in CD3+ T cells or B220+ B cells in spleens and LNs. SARS-CoV-2 infection induces severe tissue damage including lymph follicle depletion, splenic nodule atrophy, histiocyte hyperplasia and lymphocyte reductions. Moreover, in situ TUNEL staining illustrated that viral infection leads to severe lymphocyte apoptosis, which might be mediated by viral antigens inducing Fas upregulation. Furthermore, SARS-CoV-2 also triggers macrophages to produce IL-6, a proinflammatory cytokine that directly promotes lymphocyte necrosis. Collectively, these results demonstrate that SARS-CoV-2 directly neutralizes human spleens and LNs through infecting tissue- resident CD169+ macrophages.
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