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A multiplexed high-throughput neutralization assay reveals a lack of activity against multiple variants after SARS-CoV-2 infection

By Craig Fenwick, Priscilla Turelli, Celine Pellaton, Alex Farina, Jeremy Campos, Charlene Raclot, Florence Pojer, Valeria Cagno, Giuseppe Pantaleo, Didier Trono

Posted 13 Apr 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.04.08.21255150

The detection of SARS-CoV-2-specific antibodies in the serum of an individual indicates prior infection or vaccination. However, it provides limited insight into the protective nature of this immune response. Neutralizing antibodies recognizing the viral Spike are far more revealing, yet their measurement traditionally requires virus- and cell-based systems that are costly, time-consuming, poorly flexible and potentially biohazardous. Here we present a cell-free quantitative neutralization assay based on the competitive inhibition of trimeric SARS-CoV-2 Spike protein binding to the angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) viral receptor. This high-throughput method matches the performance of the gold standard live virus infectious assay, as verified with a panel of 206 seropositive donors with varying degrees of infection severity and virus-specific IgG titers, achieving 96.7% sensitivity and 100% specificity. Furthermore, it allows for the parallel assessment of neutralizing activities against multiple SARS-CoV-2 Spike variants of concern (VOC), which is otherwise unpredictable even in individuals displaying robust neutralizing antibody responses. Profiling serum samples from 59 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, we found that although most had high activity against the 2019-nCoV Spike and to a lesser extent the B.1.1.7 variant, only 58% could efficiently neutralize a Spike derivative containing mutations present in the B.1.351 variant. In conclusion, we have developed an assay that has proven its clinical relevance in the large-scale evaluation of effective neutralizing antibody responses to VOC after natural infection and that can be applied to the characterization of vaccine-induced antibody responses and of the potency of human monoclonal antibodies.

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