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Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a contagious disease caused by the virus SARS-CoV-2. The first known case was identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The disease quickly spread worldwide, resulting in the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Coronavirus disease 2019
|COVID, (the) coronavirus
Transmission and life-cycle of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19
|Fever, cough, fatigue, shortness of breath, vomiting, loss of taste or smell; some cases asymptomatic
|Pneumonia, sepsis, ARDS, kidney failure, respiratory failure, pulmonary fibrosis, CKS, MIS-C, long COVID
|2–14 days (typically 5)
|5 days to chronic
|RT‑PCR testing, CT scan, rapid antigen test
|Vaccination, face coverings, quarantine, social distancing, ventilation, hand washing
|Symptomatic and supportive
|774,690,816 confirmed cases
The symptoms of COVID‑19 are variable but often include fever, cough, headache, fatigue, breathing difficulties, loss of smell, and loss of taste. Symptoms may begin one to fourteen days after exposure to the virus. At least a third of people who are infected do not develop noticeable symptoms. Of those who develop symptoms noticeable enough to be classified as patients, most (81%) develop mild to moderate symptoms (up to mild pneumonia), while 14% develop severe symptoms (dyspnea, hypoxia, or more than 50% lung involvement on imaging), and 5% develop critical symptoms (respiratory failure, shock, or multiorgan dysfunction). Older people are at a higher risk of developing severe symptoms. Some people continue to experience a range of effects (long COVID) for months or years after infection, and damage to organs has been observed. Multi-year studies are underway to further investigate the long-term effects of the disease.
COVID‑19 transmits when infectious particles are breathed in or come into contact with the eyes, nose, or mouth. The risk is highest when people are in close proximity, but small airborne particles containing the virus can remain suspended in the air and travel over longer distances, particularly indoors. Transmission can also occur when people touch their eyes, nose or mouth after touching surfaces or objects that have been contaminated by the virus. People remain contagious for up to 20 days and can spread the virus even if they do not develop symptoms.
Testing methods for COVID-19 to detect the virus's nucleic acid include real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT‑PCR), transcription-mediated amplification, and reverse transcription loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT‑LAMP) from a nasopharyngeal swab.
Several COVID-19 vaccines have been approved and distributed in various countries, which have initiated mass vaccination campaigns. Other preventive measures include physical or social distancing, quarantining, ventilation of indoor spaces, use of face masks or coverings in public, covering coughs and sneezes, hand washing, and keeping unwashed hands away from the face. While work is underway to develop drugs that inhibit the virus, the primary treatment is symptomatic. Management involves the treatment of symptoms through supportive care, isolation, and experimental measures.
During the initial outbreak in Wuhan, the virus and disease were commonly referred to as "coronavirus" and "Wuhan coronavirus", with the disease sometimes called "Wuhan pneumonia". In the past, many diseases have been named after geographical locations, such as the Spanish flu, Middle East respiratory syndrome, and Zika virus. In January 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended 2019-nCoV and 2019-nCoV acute respiratory disease as interim names for the virus and disease per 2015 guidance and international guidelines against using geographical locations or groups of people in disease and virus names to prevent social stigma. The official names COVID‑19 and SARS-CoV-2 were issued by the WHO on 11 February 2020 with COVID-19 being shorthand for "coronavirus disease 2019". The WHO additionally uses "the COVID‑19 virus" and "the virus responsible for COVID‑19" in public communications.
Symptoms and signs
The symptoms of COVID-19 are variable depending on the type of variant contracted, ranging from mild symptoms to a potentially fatal illness. Common symptoms include coughing, fever, loss of smell (anosmia) and taste (ageusia), with less common ones including headaches, nasal congestion and runny nose, muscle pain, sore throat, diarrhea, eye irritation, and toes swelling or turning purple, and in moderate to severe cases, breathing difficulties. People with the COVID-19 infection may have different symptoms, and their symptoms may change over time. Three common clusters of symptoms have been identified: one respiratory symptom cluster with cough, sputum, shortness of breath, and fever; a musculoskeletal symptom cluster with muscle and joint pain, headache, and fatigue; and a cluster of digestive symptoms with abdominal pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. In people without prior ear, nose, or throat disorders, loss of taste combined with loss of smell is associated with COVID-19 and is reported in as many as 88% of symptomatic cases.
Of people who show symptoms, 81% develop only mild to moderate symptoms (up to mild pneumonia), while 14% develop severe symptoms (dyspnea, hypoxia, or more than 50% lung involvement on imaging) that require hospitalization, and 5% of patients develop critical symptoms (respiratory failure, septic shock, or multiorgan dysfunction) requiring ICU admission.[needs update]
At least a third of the people who are infected with the virus do not develop noticeable symptoms at any point in time. These asymptomatic carriers tend not to get tested and can still spread the disease. Other infected people will develop symptoms later (called "pre-symptomatic") or have very mild symptoms and can also spread the virus.
As is common with infections, there is a delay between the moment a person first becomes infected and the appearance of the first symptoms. The median delay for COVID-19 is four to five days possibly being infectious on 1-4 of those days. Most symptomatic people experience symptoms within two to seven days after exposure, and almost all will experience at least one symptom within 12 days.
Most people recover from the acute phase of the disease. However, some people continue to experience a range of effects, such as fatigue, for months, even after recovery. This is the result of a condition called long COVID, which can be described as a range of persistent symptoms that continue for weeks or months at a time. Long-term damage to organs has also been observed after the onset of COVID-19. Multi-year studies are underway to further investigate the potential long-term effects of the disease.The Omicron variant became dominant in the U.S. in December 2021. Symptoms with the Omicron variant are less severe than they are with other variants.
Complications may include pneumonia, acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), multi-organ failure, septic shock, and death. Cardiovascular complications may include heart failure, arrhythmias (including atrial fibrillation), heart inflammation, and thrombosis, particularly venous thromboembolism. Approximately 20–30% of people who present with COVID‑19 have elevated liver enzymes, reflecting liver injury.
Neurologic manifestations include seizure, stroke, encephalitis, and Guillain–Barré syndrome (which includes loss of motor functions). Following the infection, children may develop paediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, which has symptoms similar to Kawasaki disease, which can be fatal. In very rare cases, acute encephalopathy can occur, and it can be considered in those who have been diagnosed with COVID‑19 and have an altered mental status.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pregnant women are at increased risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID‑19. This is because pregnant women with COVID‑19 appear to be more likely to develop respiratory and obstetric complications that can lead to miscarriage, premature delivery and intrauterine growth restriction.
COVID-19 is mainly transmitted when people breathe in air contaminated by droplets/aerosols and small airborne particles containing the virus. Infected people exhale those particles as they breathe, talk, cough, sneeze, or sing. Transmission is more likely the closer people are. However, infection can occur over longer distances, particularly indoors.
The transmission of the virus is carried out through virus-laden fluid particles, or droplets, which are created in the respiratory tract, and they are expelled by the mouth and the nose. There are three types of transmission: “droplet” and “contact”, which are associated with large droplets, and “airborne”, which is associated with small droplets. If the droplets are above a certain critical size, they settle faster than they evaporate, and therefore they contaminate surfaces surrounding them. Droplets that are below a certain critical size, evaporate faster than they settle; due to that fact, they form nuclei that remain airborne for a long period of time over extensive distances.
Infectivity can begin four to five days before the onset of symptoms. Infected people can spread the disease even if they are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. Most commonly, the peak viral load in upper respiratory tract samples occurs close to the time of symptom onset and declines after the first week after symptoms begin. Current evidence suggests a duration of viral shedding and the period of infectiousness of up to ten days following symptom onset for people with mild to moderate COVID-19, and up to 20 days for persons with severe COVID-19, including immunocompromised people.Infectious particles range in size from aerosols that remain suspended in the air for long periods of time to larger droplets that remain airborne briefly or fall to the ground. Additionally, COVID-19 research has redefined the traditional understanding of how respiratory viruses are transmitted. The largest droplets of respiratory fluid do not travel far, but can be inhaled or land on mucous membranes on the eyes, nose, or mouth to infect. Aerosols are highest in concentration when people are in close proximity, which leads to easier viral transmission when people are physically close, but airborne transmission can occur at longer distances, mainly in locations that are poorly ventilated; in those conditions small particles can remain suspended in the air for minutes to hours.
Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) is a novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus. It was first isolated from three people with pneumonia connected to the cluster of acute respiratory illness cases in Wuhan. All structural features of the novel SARS-CoV-2 virus particle occur in related coronaviruses in nature, particularly in Rhinolophus sinicus aka Chinese horseshoe bats.
Outside the human body, the virus is destroyed by household soap which bursts its protective bubble. Hospital disinfectants, alcohols, heat, povidone-iodine, and ultraviolet-C (UV-C) irradiation are also effective disinfection methods for surfaces.
SARS-CoV-2 is closely related to the original SARS-CoV. It is thought to have an animal (zoonotic) origin. Genetic analysis has revealed that the coronavirus genetically clusters with the genus Betacoronavirus, in subgenus Sarbecovirus (lineage B) together with two bat-derived strains. It is 96% identical at the whole genome level to other bat coronavirus samples (BatCov RaTG13). The structural proteins of SARS-CoV-2 include membrane glycoprotein (M), envelope protein (E), nucleocapsid protein (N), and the spike protein (S). The M protein of SARS-CoV-2 is about 98% similar to the M protein of bat SARS-CoV, maintains around 98% homology with pangolin SARS-CoV, and has 90% homology with the M protein of SARS-CoV; whereas, the similarity is only around 38% with the M protein of MERS-CoV.
The many thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants are grouped into either clades or lineages. The WHO, in collaboration with partners, expert networks, national authorities, institutions and researchers, have established nomenclature systems for naming and tracking SARS-CoV-2 genetic lineages by GISAID, Nextstrain and Pango. The expert group convened by the WHO recommended the labelling of variants using letters of the Greek alphabet, for example, Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma, giving the justification that they "will be easier and more practical to discussed by non-scientific audiences". Nextstrain divides the variants into five clades (19A, 19B, 20A, 20B, and 20C), while GISAID divides them into seven (L, O, V, S, G, GH, and GR). The Pango tool groups variants into lineages, with many circulating lineages being classed under the B.1 lineage.
Several notable variants of SARS-CoV-2 emerged throughout 2020. Cluster 5 emerged among minks and mink farmers in Denmark. After strict quarantines and a mink euthanasia campaign, the cluster was assessed to no longer be circulating among humans in Denmark as of 1 February 2021.
As of December 2021[update], there are five dominant variants of SARS-CoV-2 spreading among global populations: the Alpha variant (B.1.1.7, formerly called the UK variant), first found in London and Kent, the Beta variant (B.1.351, formerly called the South Africa variant), the Gamma variant (P.1, formerly called the Brazil variant), the Delta variant (B.1.617.2, formerly called the India variant), and the Omicron variant (B.1.1.529), which had spread to 57 countries as of 7 December.
On December 19, 2023, the WHO declared that another distinctive variant, JN.1, had emerged as a "variant of interest". Though the WHO expects an increase in cases globally, particularly for countries entering winter, the current overall global health risk (as of December 21, 2023) remains low.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus can infect a wide range of cells and systems of the body. COVID‑19 is most known for affecting the upper respiratory tract (sinuses, nose, and throat) and the lower respiratory tract (windpipe and lungs). The lungs are the organs most affected by COVID‑19 because the virus accesses host cells via the receptor for the enzyme angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2), which is most abundant on the surface of type II alveolar cells of the lungs. The virus uses a special surface glycoprotein called a "spike" to connect to the ACE2 receptor and enter the host cell.
Autopsies of people who died of COVID‑19 have found diffuse alveolar damage, and lymphocyte-containing inflammatory infiltrates within the lung.
One common symptom, loss of smell, results from infection of the support cells of the olfactory epithelium, with subsequent damage to the olfactory neurons. The involvement of both the central and peripheral nervous system in COVID‑19 has been reported in many medical publications. It is clear that many people with COVID-19 exhibit neurological or mental health issues. The virus is not detected in the central nervous system (CNS) of the majority of COVID-19 patients with neurological issues. However, SARS-CoV-2 has been detected at low levels in the brains of those who have died from COVID‑19, but these results need to be confirmed. While virus has been detected in cerebrospinal fluid of autopsies, the exact mechanism by which it invades the CNS remains unclear and may first involve invasion of peripheral nerves given the low levels of ACE2 in the brain. The virus may also enter the bloodstream from the lungs and cross the blood–brain barrier to gain access to the CNS, possibly within an infected white blood cell.
Research conducted when Alpha was the dominant variant has suggested COVID-19 may cause brain damage. Later research showed that all variants studied (including Omicron) killed brain cells, but the exact cells killed varied by variant. It is unknown if such damage is temporary or permanent. Observed individuals infected with COVID-19 (most with mild cases) experienced an additional 0.2% to 2% of brain tissue lost in regions of the brain connected to the sense of smell compared with uninfected individuals, and the overall effect on the brain was equivalent on average to at least one extra year of normal ageing; infected individuals also scored lower on several cognitive tests. All effects were more pronounced among older ages.
The virus also affects gastrointestinal organs as ACE2 is abundantly expressed in the glandular cells of gastric, duodenal and rectal epithelium as well as endothelial cells and enterocytes of the small intestine.
The virus can cause acute myocardial injury and chronic damage to the cardiovascular system. An acute cardiac injury was found in 12% of infected people admitted to the hospital in Wuhan, China, and is more frequent in severe disease. Rates of cardiovascular symptoms are high, owing to the systemic inflammatory response and immune system disorders during disease progression, but acute myocardial injuries may also be related to ACE2 receptors in the heart. ACE2 receptors are highly expressed in the heart and are involved in heart function.
A high incidence of thrombosis and venous thromboembolism occurs in people transferred to intensive care units with COVID‑19 infections, and may be related to poor prognosis. Blood vessel dysfunction and clot formation (as suggested by high D-dimer levels caused by blood clots) may have a significant role in mortality, incidents of clots leading to pulmonary embolisms, and ischaemic events (strokes) within the brain found as complications leading to death in people infected with COVID‑19. Infection may initiate a chain of vasoconstrictive responses within the body, including pulmonary vasoconstriction – a possible mechanism in which oxygenation decreases during pneumonia. Furthermore, damage of arterioles and capillaries was found in brain tissue samples of people who died from COVID‑19.
COVID‑19 may also cause substantial structural changes to blood cells, sometimes persisting for months after hospital discharge. A low level of blood lymphocytes may result from the virus acting through ACE2-related entry into lymphocytes.
Another common cause of death is complications related to the kidneys. Early reports show that up to 30% of hospitalised patients both in China and in New York have experienced some injury to their kidneys, including some persons with no previous kidney problems.
Although SARS-CoV-2 has a tropism for ACE2-expressing epithelial cells of the respiratory tract, people with severe COVID‑19 have symptoms of systemic hyperinflammation. Clinical laboratory findings of elevated IL‑2, IL‑7, IL‑6, granulocyte-macrophage colony-stimulating factor (GM‑CSF), interferon gamma-induced protein 10 (IP‑10), monocyte chemoattractant protein 1 (MCP1), macrophage inflammatory protein 1‑alpha (MIP‑1‑alpha), and tumour necrosis factor (TNF‑α) indicative of cytokine release syndrome (CRS) suggest an underlying immunopathology.
Interferon alpha plays a complex, Janus-faced role in the pathogenesis of COVID-19. Although it promotes the elimination of virus-infected cells, it also upregulates the expression of ACE-2, thereby facilitating the SARS-Cov2 virus to enter cells and to replicate. A competition of negative feedback loops (via protective effects of interferon alpha) and positive feedback loops (via upregulation of ACE-2) is assumed to determine the fate of patients suffering from COVID-19.
Additionally, people with COVID‑19 and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) have classical serum biomarkers of CRS, including elevated C-reactive protein (CRP), lactate dehydrogenase (LDH), D-dimer, and ferritin.
Systemic inflammation results in vasodilation, allowing inflammatory lymphocytic and monocytic infiltration of the lung and the heart. In particular, pathogenic GM-CSF-secreting T cells were shown to correlate with the recruitment of inflammatory IL-6-secreting monocytes and severe lung pathology in people with COVID‑19. Lymphocytic infiltrates have also been reported at autopsy.
Viral and host factors
Multiple viral and host factors affect the pathogenesis of the virus. The S-protein, otherwise known as the spike protein, is the viral component that attaches to the host receptor via the ACE2 receptors. It includes two subunits: S1 and S2. S1 determines the virus-host range and cellular tropism via the receptor-binding domain. S2 mediates the membrane fusion of the virus to its potential cell host via the H1 and HR2, which are heptad repeat regions. Studies have shown that S1 domain induced IgG and IgA antibody levels at a much higher capacity. It is the focus spike proteins expression that are involved in many effective COVID‑19 vaccines.
The M protein is the viral protein responsible for the transmembrane transport of nutrients. It is the cause of the bud release and the formation of the viral envelope. The N and E protein are accessory proteins that interfere with the host's immune response.
Human angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (hACE2) is the host factor that SARS-CoV-2 virus targets causing COVID‑19. Theoretically, the usage of angiotensin receptor blockers (ARB) and ACE inhibitors upregulating ACE2 expression might increase morbidity with COVID‑19, though animal data suggest some potential protective effect of ARB; however no clinical studies have proven susceptibility or outcomes. Until further data is available, guidelines and recommendations for hypertensive patients remain.
The effect of the virus on ACE2 cell surfaces leads to leukocytic infiltration, increased blood vessel permeability, alveolar wall permeability, as well as decreased secretion of lung surfactants. These effects cause the majority of the respiratory symptoms. However, the aggravation of local inflammation causes a cytokine storm eventually leading to a systemic inflammatory response syndrome.
Among healthy adults not exposed to SARS-CoV-2, about 35% have CD4+ T cells that recognise the SARS-CoV-2 S protein (particularly the S2 subunit) and about 50% react to other proteins of the virus, suggesting cross-reactivity from previous common colds caused by other coronaviruses.
Host cytokine response
The severity of the inflammation can be attributed to the severity of what is known as the cytokine storm. Levels of interleukin 1B, interferon-gamma, interferon-inducible protein 10, and monocyte chemoattractant protein 1 were all associated with COVID‑19 disease severity. Treatment has been proposed to combat the cytokine storm as it remains to be one of the leading causes of morbidity and mortality in COVID‑19 disease.
A cytokine storm is due to an acute hyperinflammatory response that is responsible for clinical illness in an array of diseases but in COVID‑19, it is related to worse prognosis and increased fatality. The storm causes acute respiratory distress syndrome, blood clotting events such as strokes, myocardial infarction, encephalitis, acute kidney injury, and vasculitis. The production of IL-1, IL-2, IL-6, TNF-alpha, and interferon-gamma, all crucial components of normal immune responses, inadvertently become the causes of a cytokine storm. The cells of the central nervous system, the microglia, neurons, and astrocytes, are also involved in the release of pro-inflammatory cytokines affecting the nervous system, and effects of cytokine storms toward the CNS are not uncommon.
There are many unknowns for pregnant women during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that they are prone to have complications and severe disease infection with other types of coronaviruses, they have been identified as a vulnerable group and advised to take supplementary preventive measures.
Physiological responses to pregnancy can include:
- Immunological: The immunological response to COVID-19, like other viruses, depends on a working immune system. It adapts during pregnancy to allow the development of the foetus whose genetic load is only partially shared with their mother, leading to a different immunological reaction to infections during the course of pregnancy.
- Respiratory: Many factors can make pregnant women more vulnerable to hard respiratory infections. One of them is the total reduction of the lungs' capacity and inability to clear secretions.
- Coagulation: During pregnancy, there are higher levels of circulating coagulation factors, and the pathogenesis of SARS-CoV-2 infection can be implicated. The thromboembolic events with associated mortality are a risk for pregnant women.
In addition to the above, other clinical studies have proved that SARS-CoV-2 can affect the period of pregnancy in different ways. On the one hand, there is little evidence of its impact up to 12 weeks gestation. On the other hand, COVID-19 infection may cause increased rates of unfavourable outcomes in the course of the pregnancy. Some examples of these could be foetal growth restriction, preterm birth, and perinatal mortality, which refers to the foetal death past 22 or 28 completed weeks of pregnancy as well as the death among live-born children up to seven completed days of life. For preterm birth, a 2023 review indicates that there appears to be a correlation with COVID-19.
Unvaccinated women in later stages of pregnancy with COVID-19 are more likely than other patients to need very intensive care. Babies born to mothers with COVID-19 are more likely to have breathing problems. Pregnant women are strongly encouraged to get vaccinated.
COVID‑19 can provisionally be diagnosed on the basis of symptoms and confirmed using reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) or other nucleic acid testing of infected secretions. Along with laboratory testing, chest CT scans may be helpful to diagnose COVID‑19 in individuals with a high clinical suspicion of infection. Detection of a past infection is possible with serological tests, which detect antibodies produced by the body in response to the infection.
The standard methods of testing for presence of SARS-CoV-2 are nucleic acid tests, which detects the presence of viral RNA fragments. As these tests detect RNA but not infectious virus, its "ability to determine duration of infectivity of patients is limited". The test is typically done on respiratory samples obtained by a nasopharyngeal swab; however, a nasal swab or sputum sample may also be used. Results are generally available within hours. The WHO has published several testing protocols for the disease.
Several laboratories and companies have developed serological tests, which detect antibodies produced by the body in response to infection. Several have been evaluated by Public Health England and approved for use in the UK.
The University of Oxford's CEBM has pointed to mounting evidence that "a good proportion of 'new' mild cases and people re-testing positives after quarantine or discharge from hospital are not infectious, but are simply clearing harmless virus particles which their immune system has efficiently dealt with" and have called for "an international effort to standardize and periodically calibrate testing" In September 2020, the UK government issued "guidance for procedures to be implemented in laboratories to provide assurance of positive SARS-CoV-2 RNA results during periods of low prevalence, when there is a reduction in the predictive value of positive test results".
Chest CT scans may be helpful to diagnose COVID‑19 in individuals with a high clinical suspicion of infection but are not recommended for routine screening. Bilateral multilobar ground-glass opacities with a peripheral, asymmetric, and posterior distribution are common in early infection. Subpleural dominance, crazy paving (lobular septal thickening with variable alveolar filling), and consolidation may appear as the disease progresses. Characteristic imaging features on chest radiographs and computed tomography (CT) of people who are symptomatic include asymmetric peripheral ground-glass opacities without pleural effusions.
Many groups have created COVID‑19 datasets that include imagery such as the Italian Radiological Society which has compiled an international online database of imaging findings for confirmed cases. Due to overlap with other infections such as adenovirus, imaging without confirmation by rRT-PCR is of limited specificity in identifying COVID‑19. A large study in China compared chest CT results to PCR and demonstrated that though imaging is less specific for the infection, it is faster and more sensitive.
In late 2019, the WHO assigned emergency ICD-10 disease codes U07.1 for deaths from lab-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection and U07.2 for deaths from clinically or epidemiologically diagnosed COVID‑19 without lab-confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection.
The main pathological findings at autopsy are:
- Macroscopy: pericarditis, lung consolidation and pulmonary oedema
- Lung findings:
- minor serous exudation, minor fibrin exudation
- pulmonary oedema, pneumocyte hyperplasia, large atypical pneumocytes, interstitial inflammation with lymphocytic infiltration and multinucleated giant cell formation
- diffuse alveolar damage (DAD) with diffuse alveolar exudates. DAD is the cause of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) and severe hypoxaemia.
- organisation of exudates in alveolar cavities and pulmonary interstitial fibrosis
- plasmocytosis in bronchoalveolar lavage (BAL)
- Blood and vessels: disseminated intravascular coagulation (DIC); leukoerythroblastic reaction, endotheliitis, hemophagocytosis
- Heart: cardiac muscle cell necrosis
- Liver: microvesicular steatosis
- Nose: shedding of olfactory epithelium
- Brain: infarction
- Kidneys: acute tubular damage.
- Spleen: white pulp depletion.