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While the pathological mechanisms in COVID-19 illness are still poorly understood, it is increasingly clear that high levels of pro-inflammatory mediators play a major role in clinical deterioration in patients with severe disease. Current evidence points to a hyperinflammatory state as the driver of respiratory compromise in severe COVID-19 disease, with a clinical trajectory resembling acute respiratory distress syndrome, but how this 'runaway train' inflammatory response emerges and is maintained is not known. Here, we present the first mathematical model of lung hyperinflammation due to SARS-CoV-2 infection. This model is based on a network of purported mechanistic and physiological pathways linking together five distinct biochemical species involved in the inflammatory response. Simulations of our model give rise to distinct qualitative classes of COVID-19 patients: (i) individuals who naturally clear the virus, (ii) asymptomatic carriers and (iii-v) individuals who develop a case of mild, moderate, or severe illness. These findings, supported by a comprehensive sensitivity analysis, point to potential therapeutic interventions to prevent the emergence of hyperinflammation. Specifically, we suggest that early intervention with a locally acting anti-inflammatory agent (such as inhaled corticosteroids) may effectively blockade the pathological hyperinflammatory reaction as it emerges.

Original publication




Journal article


Journal of the Royal Society, Interface

Publication Date





School of Mathematical Sciences, University of Nottingham, Nottingham NG7 2RD, UK.


Lung, Epithelium, Epithelial Cells, Humans, Inflammation, Adrenal Cortex Hormones, Cytokines, Models, Immunological, Respiratory Distress Syndrome, COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2