The factors that influence survival during severe infection are unclear. Extracellular chromatin drives pathology, but the mechanisms enabling its accumulation remain elusive. Here, we show that in murine sepsis models, splenocyte death interferes with chromatin clearance through the release of the DNase I inhibitor actin. Actin-mediated inhibition was compensated by upregulation of DNase I or the actin scavenger gelsolin. Splenocyte death and neutrophil extracellular trap (NET) clearance deficiencies were prevalent in individuals with severe COVID-19 pneumonia or microbial sepsis. Activity tracing by plasma proteomic profiling uncovered an association between low NET clearance and increased COVID-19 pathology and mortality. Low NET clearance activity with comparable proteome associations was prevalent in healthy donors with low-grade inflammation, implicating defective chromatin clearance in the development of cardiovascular disease and linking COVID-19 susceptibility to pre-existing conditions. Hence, the combination of aberrant chromatin release with defects in protective clearance mechanisms lead to poor survival outcomes.
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