Serological assays for emerging coronaviruses: challenges and pitfalls

Virus Res. 2014 Dec 19;194:175-83. doi: 10.1016/j.virusres.2014.03.018. Epub 2014 Mar 23.


More than a decade after the emergence of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) in 2002/2003 the occurrence of a novel CoV termed Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) CoV challenges researchers and public health authorities. To control spread and finally contain novel viruses, rapid identification and subsequent isolation of infected individuals and their contacts is of utmost importance. Next to methods for nucleic acid detection, validated serological assays are particularly important as the timeframe for antibody detection is less restricted. During the SARS-CoV epidemic a wide variety of serological diagnostic assays were established using multiple methods as well as different viral antigens. Even though the majority of the developed assays showed high sensitivity and specificity, numerous studies reported on cross-reactive antibodies to antigens from wide-spread common cold associated CoVs. In order to improve preparedness and responsiveness during future outbreaks of novel CoVs, information and problems regarding serological diagnosis that occurred during the SARS-CoV should be acknowledged. In this review we summarize the performance of different serological assays as well as the applicability of the two main applied antigens (spike and nucleocapsid protein) used during the SARS-CoV outbreak. We highlight challenges and potential pitfalls that occur when dealing with a novel emerging coronavirus like MERS-CoV. In addition we describe problems that might occur when animal sera are tested in serological assays for the identification of putative reservoirs. Finally, we give a recommendation for a serological testing scheme and outline necessary improvements that should be implemented for a better preparedness.

Keywords: Antibody; Cross-reactivity; MERS-Coronavirus; Reservoir; SARS-Coronavirus; Serology.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Antibodies, Viral / blood*
  • Coronaviridae Infections / diagnosis*
  • Coronaviridae Infections / veterinary
  • Coronavirus / immunology*
  • Diagnostic Tests, Routine / methods*
  • Humans
  • Serologic Tests / methods


  • Antibodies, Viral