Comparative Serological Study for the Prevalence of Anti-MERS Coronavirus Antibodies in High- and Low-Risk Groups in Qatar
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Infection with Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) could be asymptomatic or cause mild influenza-like illness. Therefore, the prevalence of MERS-CoV infections in the general population could be underestimated, which necessitates active surveillance to determine the epidemiological importance of asymptomatic cases. The aim of this study is to evaluate the performance of various serological assays and to estimate the seroprevalence of anti-MERS-CoV antibodies in high- and low-risk groups in Qatar. A total of 4858 samples were screened, including 4719 samples collected from healthy blood donors (BD) over a period of five years (2012-2016), 135 samples from baseline case contacts (CC) collected from individuals in close contact with three positive PCR-confirmed patients (CP), and four samples from MERS-CoV CP. Initial screening using anti-MERS-CoV IgG (IgG rS1-ELISA kit) revealed ten reactive samples from BD (10/4719, 0.21%), one from CC (1/135, 0.74%), and three from CP (3/4, 75%). Samples from CP but not from BD were also reactive by whole-virus anti-MERS-CoV IgG () and IgM () indirect immunefluorescent tests (IIFT) and pseudoparticle neutralization test (ppNT). The reactive sample from CC was also confirmed by ppNT. Surprisingly, one out of thirteen (7.7%) randomly selected IgG rS1-ELISA-negative BD samples from the initial screening was reactive by the IgM-IIFT (but not by the IgG-IIFT) and was subsequently confirmed by ppNT. All IgG rS1-ELISA-reactive samples from BD exhibited considerable reactivity to the four circulating human coronaviruses (HKU1, OC43, 229E, and NL63). Cross-reactivity with SARS was only reported for samples from CP using IgG and IgM-IIFT. In conclusion, we report a low prevalence of anti-MERS antibodies in the general population, which coincides with the low number of all reported cases by the time of our study (2017) in Qatar (). The false-positive results and the observed cross-reactivity between MERS-CoV and other circulating human coronavirus necessitate more detailed evaluation of available serological assays.