T-cell count and T-cell telomere length in patients with severe COVID-19

Bryan D. Kraft, Simon Verhulst, Tsung Po Lai, Bruce A. Sullenger, Yunfei Wang, Wes Rountree, Lingye Chen, Christopher W. Woods, Thomas N. Denny, Abraham Aviv

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Lymphocyte telomere length (TL) is highly variable and shortens with age. Short telomeres may impede TL-dependent T-cell clonal expansion with viral infection. As SARS-CoV-2 infection can induce prolonged and severe T-cell lymphopenia, infected adults, and particularly older adults with short telomeres, may display severe T-cell lymphopenia. To examine the relationship between T-cell TL parameters and T-cell counts, we studied 40 patients hospitalized with severe COVID-19. T-cells were isolated from lymphocytes, counted using flow cytometry, and their TL parameters were measured using the Telomere Shortest Length Assay. The cohort (median age = 62 years, 27% female) was racially and ethnically diverse (33% White, 35% Black, and 33% Other). On intensive care unit study day 1, T-cell count (mean=1.03 x109/L) was inversely related to age (p=0.007) and higher in females than males (p=0.025). Mean TL was 3.88 kilobases (kb), and 45.3% of telomeres were shorter than 3 kb. Using multiple regression analysis and adjusting for age and sex, T-cell count decreased with increased proportion of T-cell telomeres shorter than 3 kb (p=0.033) and increased with mean TL (p=0.052). Our findings suggest an association between the buildup of short telomeres within T-cells and explain in part reduced peripheral blood T-cell counts in patients with severe COVID-19. Shortened T-cell telomeres may be a risk factor for COVID-19-associated T-cell lymphopenia.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1356638
JournalFrontiers in immunology
StatePublished - 2024


  • COVID-19
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • T-lymphocytes
  • aging
  • lymphopenia
  • sex
  • telomere


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