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Infection by SARS-CoV-2 commonly begins in the nasopharynx, and the cytologic and molecular correlates are not characterized. Fifty-eight cytologic preps (20 oral and 38 from the nasopharynx) were obtained from ten patients and analyzed in a blinded fashion for SARS-CoV-2 spike and envelope protein by immunohistochemistry and viral RNA by in situ hybridization. qRTPCR identified three positive cases and seven controls; the three cases reported mild symptoms that resolved in 2-3 days. Blinded analyses confirmed the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 spike and envelope proteins and viral RNA in the three cases and viral absence in the seven controls. A signal for the positive cases was evident in each nasopharyngeal and none of the oral samples. Viral RNA/proteins localized exclusively to glandular cells and was present in high copy number. Blinded analysis of the cytology documented that the glandular cells infected by SARS-CoV-2 showed marked degeneration with ciliocytophthoria; viral inclusions were not evident. Co-expression analysis showed viral infected cells had increased apoptosis, marked by strong expression of activated caspase 3. Weekly serial testing of two of the cases showed persistence of productive viral infection for up to 2 weeks after symptom onset. It is concluded that the target cell of SARS-CoV-2 in the head and neck region is the glandular cell of the nasal passages, that viral infection is lytic and associated with high copy number that facilitates viral spread. The method outlines a simple, rapid test for productive SARS-CoV-2 based on immunohistochemistry or in situ hybridization of the glandular cells from the nasopharynx. Copyright © 2020 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


Gerard J Nuovo, Cynthia Magro, Adel Mikhail. Cytologic and molecular correlates of SARS-CoV-2 infection of the nasopharynx. Annals of diagnostic pathology. 2020 Oct;48:151565

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PMID: 32659620

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