PREPRINT: Intrafamilial Exposure to SARS-CoV-2 Induces Cellular Immune Response without Seroconversion

In the background of the current COVID-19 pandemic, serological tests are being used to assess past infection and immunity against SARS-CoV-2. This knowledge is paramount to determine the transmission dynamics of SARS-CoV-2 through the post pandemic period. Several individuals belonging to households with an index COVID-19 patient, reported symptoms of COVID-19 but discrepant serology results. Methods. Here we investigated the humoral and cellular immune responses against SARS-CoV-2 in seven families, including nine index patients and eight contacts, who had evidence of serological discordances within the households. Ten unexposed healthy donors were enrolled as controls. Results. All index patients recovered from a mild COVID-19. They all developed anti-SARS-CoV-2 antibodies and a significant T cell response detectable up to 69 days after symptom onset. Six of the eight contacts reported COVID-19 symptoms within 1 to 7 days after the index patients but all were SARS-CoV-2 seronegative. Six out of eight contacts developed a SARS-CoV-2-specific T cell response against structural and/or accessory proteins that lasts up to 80 days post symptom onset suggesting a past SARS-CoV-2 infection. Conclusion. Exposure to SARS-CoV-2 can induce virus-specific T cell responses without seroconversion. T cell responses may be more sensitive indicators of SARS-Co-V-2 exposure than antibodies. Our results indicate that epidemiological data relying only on the detection of SARS-CoV-2 antibodies may lead to a substantial underestimation of prior exposure to the virus

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