Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have experienced lower COVID-19 caseloads and fewer deaths than countries in other regions worldwide. Under-reporting of cases and a younger population could partly account for these differences, but pre-existing immunity to coronaviruses is another potential factor. Blood samples from Sierra Leonean Lassa fever and Ebola survivors and their contacts collected before the first reported COVID-19 cases were assessed using enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays for the presence of antibodies binding to proteins of coronaviruses that infect humans. Results were compared to COVID-19 subjects and healthy blood donors from the United States. Prior to the pandemic, Sierra Leoneans had more frequent exposures than Americans to coronaviruses with epitopes that cross-react with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2 (SARS-CoV-2), SARS-CoV, and Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV). The percentage of Sierra Leoneans with antibodies reacting to seasonal coronaviruses was also higher than for American blood donors. Serological responses to coronaviruses by Sierra Leoneans did not differ by age or sex. Approximately a quarter of Sierra Leonian pre-pandemic blood samples had neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 pseudovirus, while about a third neutralized MERS-CoV pseudovirus. Prior exposures to coronaviruses that induce cross-protective immunity may contribute to reduced COVID-19 cases and deaths in Sierra Leone.
Keywords: COVID-19 caseloads and deaths; Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome coronavirus; enzyme-linked immunosorbent assays; pre-existing immunity to coronaviruses; pseudovirus neutralizing antibodies; recombinant antigens; severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus-2; sub-Saharan Africa.