Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), caused by severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 virus, is a predominantly respiratory tract infection with the capacity to affect multiple organ systems. Abnormal liver tests, mainly transaminase elevations, have been reported in hospitalized patients. We describe a syndrome of cholangiopathy in patients recovering from severe COVID-19 characterized by marked elevation in serum alkaline phosphatase (ALP) accompanied by evidence of bile duct injury on imaging.
We conducted a retrospective study of COVID-19 patients admitted to our institution from March 1, 2020, to August 15, 2020, on whom the hepatology service was consulted for abnormal liver tests. Bile duct injury was identified by abnormal liver tests with serum ALP > 3x upper limit of normal and abnormal findings on magnetic resonance cholangiopacreatography. Clinical, laboratory, radiological, and histological findings were recorded in a Research Electronic Data Capture database.
Twelve patients were identified, 11 men and 1 woman, with a mean age of 58 years. Mean time from COVID-19 diagnosis to diagnosis of cholangiopathy was 118 days. Peak median serum alanine aminotransferase was 661 U/L and peak median serum ALP was 1855 U/L. Marked elevations of erythrocyte sedimentation rate, C-reactive protein, and D-dimers were common. Magnetic resonance cholangiopacreatography findings included beading of intrahepatic ducts (11/12, 92%), bile duct wall thickening with enhancement (7/12, 58%), and peribiliary diffusion high signal (10/12, 83%). Liver biopsy in 4 patients showed acute and/or chronic large duct obstruction without clear bile duct loss. Progressive biliary tract damage has been demonstrated radiographically. Five patients were referred for consideration of liver transplantation after experiencing persistent jaundice, hepatic insufficiency, and/or recurrent bacterial cholangitis. One patient underwent successful living donor liver transplantation.
Cholangiopathy is a late complication of severe COVID-19 with the potential for progressive biliary injury and liver failure. Further studies are required to understand pathogenesis, natural history, and therapeutic interventions.