Evidence Mounts for COVID-19 Effects on Thyroid Gland


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Rates of thyrotoxicosis are significantly higher among patients who are critically ill with COVID-19 than among patients who are critically ill but who do not not have COVID-19, suggesting an atypical form of thyroiditis related to the novel coronavirus infection, according to new research.

“We suggest routine assessment of thyroid function in patients with COVID-19 requiring high-intensity care because they frequently present with thyrotoxicosis due to a form of subacute thyroiditis related to SARS-CoV-2,” say the authors in correspondence published online in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology.

However, notably, the study ― which compared critically ill ICU patients who had COVID-19 with those who did not have COVID-19 or who had milder cases of COVID-19 ― indicates that thyroid disorders do not appear to increase the risk of developing COVID-19, first author Ilaria Muller, MD, PhD, of the Department of Endocrinology, IRCCS Fondazione Ca’ Granda Ospedale Maggiore Policlinico, Milan, Italy, told Medscape Medical News.

“It is important to highlight that we did not find an increased prevalence of preexisting thyroid disorders in COVID-19 patients (contrary to early media reports),” she said.

“So far, clinical observations do not support this fear, and we need to reassure people with thyroid disorders, since such disorders are very common among the general population,” she said.

Yet the findings add to emerging evidence of a COVID-19/thyroid relationship, Angela M. Leung, MD, told Medscape Medical News.

“Given the healthcare impacts of the current COVID-19 pandemic worldwide, this study provides some insight on the potential systemic inflammation, as well as thyroid-specific inflammation, of the SARS-Cov-2 virus that is described in some emerging reports,” she said.

“This study joins at least six others that have reported a clinical presentation resembling subacute thyroiditis in critically ill patients with COVID-19,” noted Leung, of the Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Metabolism, Department of Medicine, UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, Los Angeles, California.

Thyroid Function Analysis in Those With Severe COVID-19

Muller explained that preliminary data from her institution showed thyroid abnormalities in patients who were severely ill with COVID-10. She and her team extended the evaluation to include thyroid data and other data on 93 patients with COVID-19 who were admitted to high-intensity-care units (HICUs) in Italy during the 2020 pandemic.

Those data were compared with data on 101 critically ill patients admitted to the same HICUs in 2019 who did not have COVID-19. A third group of 52 patients with COVID-19 who were admitted to low-intensity-care units (LICUs) in Italy in 2020 were also included in the analysis.

The mean age of the patients in the HICU 2020 group was 65.3 years; in the HICU 2019 group, it was 73 years; and in the LICU group, it was 70 years (P = .001). In addition, the HICU 2020 group included more men than the other two groups (69% vs 56% and 48%; P = .03).

Of note, only 9% of patients in the HICU 2020 group had preexisting thyroid disorders, compared with 21% in the LICU group and 23% in the HICU 2019 group (P = .017).

These findings suggest that “such conditions are not a risk factor for SARS-CoV-2 infection or severity of COVID-19,” the authors write.

The patients with the preexisting thyroid conditions were excluded from the thyroid function analysis.

A significantly higher proportion of patients in the HICU 2020 group (13; 15%) were thyrotoxic upon admission, compared with just one (1%) of 78 patients in the HICU 2019 group (P = .002) and one (2%) of 41 patients in the LICU group (P = .025).

Among the 14 patients in the two COVID-19 groups who had thyrotoxicosis, the majority were male (9; 64%)

Among those in the HICU 2020 group, serum thyroid stimulating hormone (TSH) concentrations were lower than in either of the other two groups (P = .018), and serum free thyroxine (free T4) concentrations were higher than in the LICU group (P = .016) but not the HICU 2019 group.

Differences Compared With Other Infection-Related Thyroiditis

Although thyrotoxicosis relating to subacute viral thyroiditis can result from a wide variety of viral infections, there are some key differences with COVID-19, Muller said.

“Thyroid dysfunction related to SARS-CoV-2 seems to be milder than that of classic subacute thyroiditis due to other viruses,” she explained.

Furthermore, thyroid dysfunction that is associated with other viral infections is more common in women, whereas there were more male patients with the COVID-19-related atypical thyroiditis.

In addition, the thyroid effects developed early with COVID-19, whereas they usually emerge after the infections by other viruses.

Patients did not demonstrate the neck pain that is common with classic viral thyroiditis, and the thyroid abnormalities appear to correlate with the severity of COVID-19, whereas they are seen even in patients with mild symptoms when other viral infections are the cause.

In addition to the risk for subacute viral thyroiditis, critically ill patients in general are at risk of developing nonthyroidal illness syndrome, with alterations in thyroid function. However, thyroid hormone measures in the patients severely ill with COVID-19 were not consistent with that syndrome.

A subanalysis of eight HICU 2020 patients with thyroid dysfunction who were followed for 55 days after discharge showed that two experienced hyperthyroidism but likely not from COVID-19; in the remaining six, thyroid function normalized.

Muller speculated that, when ill with COVID-19, the patients likely had a combination of SARS-CoV-2-related atypical thyroiditis and nonthyroidal illness syndrome, known as T4 toxicosis.

Will There Be Any Long-term Effects?

Importantly, it remains unknown whether the novel coronavirus has longer-term effects on the thyroid, Muller said.

“We cannot predict what will be the long-lasting thyroid effects after COVID-19,” she said.

With classic subacute viral thyroiditis, “After a few years…5% to 20% of patients develop permanent hypothyroidism, [and] the same might happen in COVID-19 patients,” she hypothesized.

“We will follow our patients long term to answer this question ― this study is already ongoing.”

In the meantime, diagnosis of thyroid dysfunction in patients with COVID-19 is important, inasmuch as it could worsen the already critical conditions of patients, Muller stressed.

“The gold-standard treatment for thyroiditis is steroids, so the presence of thyroid dysfunction might represent an additional indication to such treatment in COVID-19 patients, to be verified in properly designed clinical trials,” she advised.

ACE2 Cell Receptors Highly Expressed in Thyroid

Muller and colleagues also note recent research showing that angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) ― demonstrated to be a key host-cell entry receptor for both SARS-CoV and SARS-CoV-2 ― is expressed in even higher levels in the thyroid than the lungs, where it causes COVID-19’s notorious pulmonary effects.

Muller says the implications of ACE2 expression in the thyroid remain to be elucidated.

“If ACE2 is confirmed to be expressed at higher levels compared with the lungs in the thyroid gland and other tissues, ie, small intestine, testis, kidney, heart, etc, dedicated studies will be needed to correlate ACE2 expression with the organs’ susceptibility to SARS-CoV-2 reflected by clinical presentation,” she said.

Leung added that as a take-home message from these and the other thyroid/COVID-19 studies, “Data are starting to show us that COVID-19 infection may cause thyrotoxicosis that is possibly related to thyroid and systemic inflammation.

“However, the serum thyroid function test abnormalities seen in COVID-19 patients with subacute thyroiditis are also likely exacerbated to a substantial extent by nonthyroidal illness physiology.”

The authors have disclosed no relevant financial relationships. Leung is on the advisory board of Medscape Diabetes and Endocrinology.

Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol. Published July 30, 2020. Full text

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