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A SARS-CoV-2 Nucleocapsid Variant that Affects Antigen Test Performance

By Lori Bourassa, Garrett A. Perchetti, Quynh Phung, Michelle J Lin, Margaret G Mills, Pavitra Roychoudhury, Kimberly G Harmon, Jonathan C. Reed, Alex Greninger

Posted 05 May 2021
medRxiv DOI: 10.1101/2021.05.05.21256527

More than one year into a global pandemic, SARS-CoV-2 is now defined by a variety of rapidly evolving variant lineages. Several FDA authorized molecular diagnostic tests have been impacted by viral variation, while no reports of viral variation affecting antigen test performance have occurred to date. While determining the analytical sensitivity of the Quidel Sofia SARS Antigen FIA test (Sofia 2), we uncovered a high viral load specimen that repeatedly tested negative by this antigen test. Whole genome sequencing of the specimen uncovered two mutations, T205I and D399N, present in the nucleocapsid protein of the isolate. All six SARS-CoV-2 positive clinical specimens available in our laboratory with a D399N nucleocapsid mutation and CT < 31 were not detected by the Sofia 2 but detected by the Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card, while clinical specimens with the T205I mutation were detected by both assays. Testing of recombinant SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid with these variants demonstrated an approximate 1000-fold loss in sensitivity for the Quidel Sofia SARS Antigen FIA test associated with the D399N mutation, while the BinaxNOW and Quidel Quickvue SARS Antigen tests were unaffected by the mutation. The D399N nucleocapsid mutation has been relatively uncommon to date, appearing in only 0.02% of genomes worldwide at time of writing. Our results demonstrate how routine pathogen genomics can be integrated into the clinical microbiology laboratory to investigate diagnostic edge cases, as well as the importance of profiling antigenic diversity outside of the spike protein for SARS-CoV-2 diagnostics.

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