Probabilistic classification of anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibody responses improves seroprevalence estimates

Clin Transl Immunology. 2022 Mar 2;11(3):e1379. doi: 10.1002/cti2.1379. eCollection 2022.


Objectives: Population-level measures of seropositivity are critical for understanding the epidemiology of an emerging pathogen, yet most antibody tests apply a strict cutoff for seropositivity that is not learnt in a data-driven manner, leading to uncertainty when classifying low-titer responses. To improve upon this, we evaluated cutoff-independent methods for their ability to assign likelihood of SARS-CoV-2 seropositivity to individual samples.

Methods: Using robust ELISAs based on SARS-CoV-2 spike (S) and the receptor-binding domain (RBD), we profiled antibody responses in a group of SARS-CoV-2 PCR+ individuals (n = 138). Using these data, we trained probabilistic learners to assign likelihood of seropositivity to test samples of unknown serostatus (n = 5100), identifying a support vector machines-linear discriminant analysis learner (SVM-LDA) suited for this purpose.

Results: In the training data from confirmed ancestral SARS-CoV-2 infections, 99% of participants had detectable anti-S and -RBD IgG in the circulation, with titers differing > 1000-fold between persons. In data of otherwise healthy individuals, 7.2% (n = 367) of samples were of uncertain serostatus, with values in the range of 3-6SD from the mean of pre-pandemic negative controls (n = 595). In contrast, SVM-LDA classified 6.4% (n = 328) of test samples as having a high likelihood (> 99% chance) of past infection, 4.5% (n = 230) to have a 50-99% likelihood, and 4.0% (n = 203) to have a 10-49% likelihood. As different probabilistic approaches were more consistent with each other than conventional SD-based methods, such tools allow for more statistically-sound seropositivity estimates in large cohorts.

Conclusion: Probabilistic antibody testing frameworks can improve seropositivity estimates in populations with large titer variability.

Keywords: COVID‐19; SARS‐CoV‐2; antibody responses; antibody testing; probability; serology.