The grim finding was reported on by Communist Party mouthpiece the Global Times on Friday, after a paper by Wuhan doctors published in the Journal of Forensic Medicine earlier in the week went viral on Chinese social media.
“The influence of COVID-19 on the human body is like a combination of SARS and AIDS as it damages both the lungs and immune systems,” Peng Zhiyong, director of the intensive care unit of the Zhongnan Hospital of Wuhan University in Wuhan, told the Global Times.
Dr Peng was commenting on the paper by Liu Liang, a forensic specialist from the Tongji Medical College at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, whose team had conducted nine autopsies of coronavirus patients as of February 24.
“The autopsy results Liu shared inspired me a lot. Based on the results, I think the most important thing now is to take measures at an early stage of the disease to protect patients’ lungs from irreversible fibrosis,” Dr Peng told the outlet.
Pulmonary fibrosis is permanent scarring of the lung tissue that can leave the patient chronically out of breath. The paper described an autopsy conducted on an 85-year-old man. It said there was apparent damage to the patient’s lungs.
Excess production of mucus spilt out of the alveoli — tiny air sacs in the lungs that absorb oxygen — indicating COVID-19 “causes an inflammation response that damages deep airways and pulmonary alveoli”.
According to the Global Times, the paper said the patient exhibited similar pathological changes to those caused by SARS and MERS. Fibrosis was “not as serious as was seen in SARS patients, but an exudative reaction was more apparent, possibly due to the short course of his disease”.
The paper did not say that all coronavirus patients will suffer permanent fibrosis.
An earlier study published in The Lancet which examined the CT scans of 81 patients with COVID-19 in Wuhan found the imagery “indicated the appearance of interstitial changes, suggesting the development of fibrosis”.
“However, since the natural history of COVID-19 pneumonia is yet to be fully explored, it is too early to label these lung changes as irreversible fibrosis,” the researchers wrote.
It comes as a group of Chinese scientists warn that the virus has mutated into a more aggressive strain. In a new study published in the National Science Review, researchers suggested that after COVID-19 crossed into humans, the original strain evolved into a second type and both of these are now circulating.
More than 95,000 cases of the disease have been confirmed worldwide and over 3000 people have died, including two in Australia, where there are currently 50 confirmed cases.