Exposure to air pollutants has been previously associated with respiratory viral infections, including influenza, measles, mumps, rhinovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus. Epidemiological studies have also suggested that air pollution exposure is associated with increased cases of SARS-CoV-2 infection and COVID-19-associated mortality, although the molecular mechanisms by which pollutant exposure affects viral infection and pathogenesis of COVID-19 remain unknown. In this review, we suggest potential molecular mechanisms that could account for this association. We have focused on the potential effect of exposure to nitrogen dioxide (NO ), ozone (O ), and particulate matter (PM) since there are studies investigating how exposure to these pollutants affects the life cycle of other viruses. We have concluded that pollutant exposure may affect different stages of the viral life cycle, including inhibition of mucociliary clearance, alteration of viral receptors and proteases required for entry, changes to antiviral interferon production and viral replication, changes in viral assembly mediated by autophagy, prevention of uptake by macrophages, and promotion of viral spread by increasing epithelial permeability. We believe that exposure to pollutants skews adaptive immune responses toward bacterial/allergic immune responses, as opposed to antiviral responses. Exposure to air pollutants could also predispose exposed populations toward developing COIVD-19-associated immunopathology, enhancing virus-induced tissue inflammation and damage.
© 2020 New York Academy of Sciences.