Diffuse alveolar damage (DAD) is a ubiquitous finding in inpatient coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19)-related deaths, but recent reports have also described additional atypical findings, including vascular changes. An aim of this study was to assess lung autopsy findings in COVID-19 inpatients, and in untreated severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2)-positive individuals who died in the community, in order to understand the relative impact of medical intervention on lung histology. Additionally, we aimed to investigate whether COVID-19 represents a unique histological variant of DAD by comparing the pathological findings with those of uninfected control patients.
Lung sections from autopsy cases were reviewed by three pulmonary pathologists, including two who were blinded to patient cohort. The cohorts included four COVID-19 inpatients, four cases with postmortem SARS-CoV-2 diagnoses who died in the community, and eight SARS-CoV-2-negative control cases. DAD was present in all but one SARS-CoV-2-positive patient, who was asymptomatic and died in the community. Although SARS-CoV-2-positive patients were noted to have more focal perivascular inflammation/endothelialitis than control patients, there were no significant differences in the presence of hyaline membranes, fibrin thrombi, airspace organisation, and 'acute fibrinous and organising pneumonia'-like intra-alveolar fibrin deposition between the cohorts. Fibrinoid vessel wall necrosis, haemorrhage and capillaritis were not features of COVID-19-related DAD.
DAD is the primary histological manifestation of severe lung disease in COVID-19 patients who die both in hospital and in the community, suggesting no contribution of hyperoxaemic mechanical ventilation to the histological changes. There are no distinctive morphological features with which to confidently differentiate COVID-19-related DAD from DAD due to other causes.