Deluge of Liver Disease Due to COVID-19?

Two articles in a recent issue of Hepatology describe both direct and indirect effects of COVID-19 on the liver.

The first study with 2273 patients (MM Phipps et al Hepatology 2020; 72: 807-817. Full Text: Acute Liver Injury in COVID‐19: Prevalence and Association with Clinical Outcomes in a Large U.S. Cohort), with retrospective data, describes how most cases of COVID-19 are mild. Severe cases of liver disease are generally a marker for elevated inflammatory markers and severe systemic disease. Key findings:

  • 45% had mild (ALT <2 x ULN), 21% moderate (ALT 2-5 x ULN), and 6.4% severe liver injury (SLI) (ALT >5 x ULN).
  • Patients with SLI had a more severe clinical course, including higher rates of intensive care unit admission (69%), intubation (65%), renal replacement therapy (RRT; 33%), and mortality (42%).
  • In multivariable analysis, peak ALT was significantly associated with death or discharge to hospice (OR, 1.14; P = 0.044), controlling for age, body mass index, diabetes, hypertension, intubation, and RRT

Going into this new year, the more concerning effects of COVID-19 pandemic for the liver is likely to be the increase is severe chronic liver disease related to alcohol (and perhaps fatty liver disease too). The second article (BL Da et al. Hepatology 2020; 72: 1102-1108. Coronavirus Disease 2019 Hangover: A Rising Tide of Alcohol Use Disorder and Alcohol‐Associated Liver Disease) discusses the expectation of increased liver disease due to alcohol use disorder (AUD) and alcohol-associated liver disease (ALD). Key points:

  • In China, reports indicate a “>2-fold increase in harmful drinking after COVID-19, an effect likely repeated in the United States where an estimated 12.7% of the population has AUD and ALD is responsible for the highest hospitalization cost burden among all chronic liver diseases (CLDs).”
  • Increased alcohol use is likely to worsen other chronic liver diseases in addition to ALD
  • In addition, all of these effects are compounded by avoidance of health care facilities and delays in care

My take: COVID-19 infections have direct effects on the liver. However, the increased use of alcohol as well as weight gain are likely to be more important in terms of liver-related morbidity and mortality.