Scientists have developed a blood test which they say may be able to spot who is at most risk of getting severe COVID-19 disease, and which may help doctors to develop new treatments.

Some people have only mild symptoms after being infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, while others are much more severely affected. It is not clear why some people are affected more than others. This test suggests the immune system response to the virus may explain this variation.

The blood test identified 27 proteins which were either higher or lower than the normal range in people who had more severe disease. If the test is validated, these proteins could be used as ‘biomarkers’ to identify people likely to need oxygen or ventilation.

However, in the study, the test was used on just 48 people with COVID-19. Bigger studies would be needed to make sure the test is reliable.


Where did the story come from?

The Sun and The Times carried news stories about the research, from the Francis Crick Institute in the UK and the Charite Universitatsmedizin Berlin in Germany. Both reports focused on the potential of the tests to identify those at highest risk of severe illness or death.


What is the basis for the claim?

The study the reports were based on was published in the journal Cell Press. In the study, the researchers explain how they developed a system to rapidly analyse proteins in blood samples using mass spectrometry. The automated system can analyse almost 800 samples a day, the researchers say. It was developed before the COVID-19 outbreak started.

They ‘trained’ the system using blood tests from a random population-level sample of 199 people from Scotland. The system used a form of artificial intelligence, deep neural networks, to analyse the data from the Scottish blood samples. Then, once the coronavirus outbreak began, they worked with doctors in Germany to analyse blood samples from 31 patients admitted to hospital with COVID-19.

The research identified 27 biomarkers which were higher or lower than normal for patients who were more severely ill. A separate group of 17 COVID-19 patients and 15 healthy volunteers then had their blood tested for these biomarkers.

The biomarkers found to be different in people who were more severely ill included proteins involved in inflammation and immune response, as well as proteins relating to blood clotting and tissue repair. Inflammation, an over-active immune response, blood clots and damage to lung tissue have all been seen in sicker COVID-19 patients.

The researchers say their test might not only help identify patients likely to have worse disease and need more care, but could also help researchers trying to work out how best to target the disease with drugs or other treatments.


Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser



  1. Messner, C.B; Demichev, V; Wendisch, D et al. Ultra-high-throughput clinical proteomics reveals classifiers of COVID-19 infection. Cell Systems (2020), doi: j.cels.2020.05.012.