COVID-19 hospitalization rates rise exponentially with age, inversely proportional to thymic T-cell production

J R Soc Interface. 2021 Mar;18(176):20200982. doi: 10.1098/rsif.2020.0982. Epub 2021 Mar 17.


Here, we report that COVID-19 hospitalization rates follow an exponential relationship with age, doubling for every 16 years of age or equivalently increasing by 4.5% per year of life (R2 = 0.98). This mirrors the well-studied exponential decline of both thymus volume and T-cell production, which halve every 16 years. COVID-19 can therefore be added to the list of other diseases with this property, including those caused by methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, MERS-CoV, West Nile virus, Streptococcus pneumoniae and certain cancers, such as chronic myeloid leukaemia and brain cancers. In addition, the incidence of severe disease and mortality due to COVID-19 are both higher in men, consistent with the degree to which thymic involution (and the decrease in T-cell production with age) is more severe in men compared to women. Since these properties are shared with some non-contagious diseases, we hypothesized that the age dependence does not come from social-mixing patterns, i.e. that the probability of hospitalization given infection rises exponentially, doubling every 16 years. A Bayesian analysis of daily hospitalizations, incorporating contact matrices, found that this relationship holds for every age group except for the under 20s. While older adults have fewer contacts than young adults, our analysis suggests that there is an approximate cancellation between the effects of fewer contacts for the elderly and higher infectiousness due to a higher probability of developing severe disease. Our model fitting suggests under 20s have 49-75% additional immune protection beyond that predicted by strong thymus function alone, consistent with increased juvenile cross-immunity from other viruses. We found no evidence for differences between age groups in susceptibility to infection or infectiousness to others (given disease state), i.e. the only important factor in the age dependence of hospitalization rates is the probability of hospitalization given infection. These findings suggest the existence of a T-cell exhaustion threshold, proportional to thymic output and that clonal expansion of peripheral T-cells does not affect disease risk. The strikingly simple inverse relationship between risk and thymic T-cell output adds to the evidence that thymic involution is an important factor in the decline of the immune system with age and may also be an important clue in understanding disease progression, not just for COVID-19 but other diseases as well.

PMID:33726544 | DOI:10.1098/rsif.2020.0982