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Emergence of N antigen SARS-CoV-2 genetic variants escaping detection of antigenic #coronavirus tests

Coronavirus, Europe, Health, Infection, Italy, Science, Testing, Transmission

While conducting a large validation study on the Abbott Panbio™ COVID-19 Ag test, we noticed that some swab samples failed to generate a positive result in spite of a high viral load in Rt-PCR assays.

Sequencing analysis of viruses showing discordant results in the RT-PCR and antigen assays revealed the presence of multiple disruptive amino-acid substitutions in the N antigen (the viral protein detected in the antigen test) clustered from position 229 to 374 a region known to contain an immunodominant epitope. A relevant fraction of the variants, undetected by the antigen test, contained the mutations A376T coupled to M241I.

Intriguingly we found that virus sequences with this mutation were over-represented in the antigen-test-negative and PCR-positive samples and progressively increased in frequency over time in Veneto, a region of Italy that has aggressively scaled up the utilization of antigen tests, which reached nearly 68% of all the SARS-CoV-2 swab assays performed there. We speculate that mass utilization of antigen assays could create a selection pressure on the target that may favor the spread of undetectable virus variants.

Medrxiv preprint


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