Plasmodium infection is associated with cross-reactive antibodies to carbohydrate epitopes on the SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein

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Sero-surveillance can monitor and project disease burden and risk. However, SARS-CoV-2 antibody test results can produce false positive results, limiting their efficacy as a sero-surveillance tool. False positive SARS-CoV-2 antibody results are associated with malaria exposure, and understanding this association is essential to interpret sero-surveillance results from malaria-endemic countries. Here, pre-pandemic samples from eight malaria endemic and non-endemic countries and four continents were tested by ELISA to measure SARS-CoV-2 Spike S1 subunit reactivity. Individuals with acute malaria infection generated substantial SARS-CoV-2 reactivity. Cross-reactivity was not associated with reactivity to other human coronaviruses or other SARS-CoV-2 proteins, as measured by peptide and protein arrays. ELISAs with deglycosylated and desialated Spike S1 subunits revealed that cross-reactive antibodies target sialic acid on N-linked glycans of the Spike protein. The functional activity of cross-reactive antibodies measured by neutralization assays showed that cross-reactive antibodies did not neutralize SARS-CoV-2 in vitro. Since routine use of glycosylated or sialated assays could result in false positive SARS-CoV-2 antibody results in malaria endemic regions, which could overestimate exposure and population-level immunity, we explored methods to increase specificity by reducing cross-reactivity. Overestimating population-level exposure to SARS-CoV-2 could lead to underestimates of risk of continued COVID-19 transmission in sub-Saharan Africa.

Journal details

Volume 12
Issue number 1
Pages 22175
Available online
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