There is an urgent need to identify the cellular and molecular mechanisms responsible for severe COVID-19 that results in death. We initially performed both untargeted and targeted lipidomics as well as focused biochemical analyses of 127 plasma samples and found elevated metabolites associated with secreted phospholipase A2 (sPLA2) activity and mitochondrial dysfunction in patients with severe COVID-19. Deceased COVID-19 patients had higher levels of circulating, catalytically active sPLA2 group IIA (sPLA2-IIA), with a median value that was 9.6-fold higher than that for patients with mild disease and 5.0-fold higher than the median value for survivors of severe COVID-19. Elevated sPLA2-IIA levels paralleled several indices of COVID-19 disease severity (e.g., kidney dysfunction, hypoxia, multiple organ dysfunction). A decision tree generated by machine learning identified sPLA2-IIA levels as a central node in the stratification of patients who died from COVID-19. Random forest analysis and least absolute shrinkage and selection operator-based (LASSO-based) regression analysis additionally identified sPLA2-IIA and blood urea nitrogen (BUN) as the key variables among 80 clinical indices in predicting COVID-19 mortality. The combined PLA-BUN index performed significantly better than did either one alone. An independent cohort (n = 154) confirmed higher plasma sPLA2-IIA levels in deceased patients compared with levels in plasma from patients with severe or mild COVID-19, with the PLA-BUN index-based decision tree satisfactorily stratifying patients with mild, severe, or fatal COVID-19. With clinically tested inhibitors available, this study identifies sPLA2-IIA as a therapeutic target to reduce COVID-19 mortality.
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