COVID-19: Scientists publish striking images of coronavirus infected cells inside human lungs

Images of SARS-CoV-2 infected cells
The UNC School of Medicine lab of Camille Ehre, PhD, generated high-powered microscopic images showing startlingly high SARS-CoV-2 viral loads on human respiratory surfaces, ready to spread infection in infected individuals and transmit infection to others.

Scientists have generated striking images in respiratory tract cultures of the infectious form of the SARS-CoV-2 virus produced by infected respiratory epithelial cells. The New England Journal of Medicine featured this work in its “Images in Medicine” section. The researchers, including Camille Ehre from the University of North Carolina (UNC) Children’s Research Institute captured these images to illustrate how intense SARS-CoV-2 or COVID=19 infection of the airways can be in very graphic and easily understood images. Also Read: COVID-19 pandemic: How safe is it for kids to go back to school?

In a laboratory setting, the researchers inoculated the SARS-Co-V-2 virus or coronavirus into human bronchial epithelial cells, which were then examined 96 hours later using scanning electron microscopy.

A higher power magnification image shows the structure and density of SARS-CoV-2 virions (red) produced by human airway epithelia. (Ehre Lab, UNC School of Medicine)

The re-colourized images show infected ciliated cells with strands of mucus (yellow) attached to cilia tips (blue). Cilia are the hair-like structures on the surface of airway epithelial cells that transport mucus (and trapped viruses) from the lung. A higher power magnification image shows the structure and density of SARS-CoV-2 virions (red) produced by human airway epithelia. Virions are the complete, infectious form of the coronavirus released onto respiratory surfaces by infected host cells.Also Read: COVID-19 treatment: Steroids may improve survival rate of critically ill patients, study says

This imaging research helps illustrate the incredibly high number of virions produced and released per cell inside the human respiratory system. The large viral burden is a source for spread of infection to multiple organs of an infected individual and likely mediates the high frequency of COVID-19 transmission to others. These images make a strong case for the use of masks by infected and uninfected individuals to limit SARS-CoV-2 transmission.Also Read: COVID-19 mask myths busted: Yes, masks work. No, they do not cause oxygen deficiency

The National Institutes of Health and the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation funded this research.

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