Objective: Significant morbidity and mortality have occurred in the USA, Europe, and Asia due to severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), whereas the numbers of infections and deaths in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) have remained comparatively low. It has been hypothesized that exposure of the population in SSA to other coronaviruses prior to the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in some degree of cross-protection against SARS-CoV-2 infection and pathogenesis. We evaluated this hypothesis by comparing SARS-CoV-2 cross-reactive antibodies in pre-pandemic plasma samples collected from SSA and the USA.
Method: Pre-COVID-19 pandemic plasma samples from SSA and the USA were collected and tested by immunofluorescence assay against the spike and nucleocapsid proteins of all known human coronaviruses (HCoVs).
Results: The prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 serological cross-reactivity was significantly higher in samples from SSA compared with the USA. Most of these cross-reactive samples cross-recognized the SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein and the spike proteins of other HCoVs. Nucleocapsid proteins from HCoV-NL63 and HCoV-229E were detected in most samples, thereby implicating prior exposure to these two HCoVs as the likely source of cross-reactive antibodies against SARS-CoV-2.
Conclusion: The low incidences of SARS-CoV-2 infection and disease in SSA appear to be correlated with the pre-pandemic serological cross-recognition of HCoVs, which are substantially more prevalent in SSA than the USA.
Keywords: COVID-19; Cross-reactivity; HCoV-229E; HCoV-NL63; Human coronavirus; SARS-CoV-2; Serology; Sub-Saharan Africa.
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