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BackgroundThresholds for SARS-CoV-2 antibody assays have typically been determined using samples from symptomatic, often hospitalised, patients. In this setting the sensitivity and specificity of the best performing assays can both exceed 98%. However, antibody assay performance following mild infection is less clear.MethodsWe assessed quantitative IgG responses in a cohort of healthcare workers in Oxford, UK, with a high pre-test probability of Covid-19, in particular the 991/11,475(8.6%) who reported loss of smell/taste. We use anosmia/ageusia and other risk factors as probes for Covid-19 infection potentially undiagnosed by immunoassays by investigating their relationship with antibody readings either side of assay thresholds.ResultsThe proportion of healthcare workers reporting anosmia/ageusia increased at antibody readings below diagnostic thresholds using an in-house ELISA (n = 9324) and the Abbott Architect chemiluminescent microparticle immunoassay (CMIA; n = 11,324): 426/906 (47%) reported anosmia/ageusia with a positive ELISA, 59/449 (13.1%) with high-negative and 326/7969 (4.1%) with low-negative readings. Similarly, by CMIA, 518/1093 (47.4%) with a positive result reported anosmia/ageusia, 106/686 (15.5%) with a high-negative and 358/9563 (3.7%) with a low-negative result. Adjusting for the proportion of staff reporting anosmia/ageusia suggests the sensitivity of both assays in mild infection is lower than previously reported: Oxford ELISA 89.8% (95%CI 86.6-92.8%) and Abbott CMIA 79.3% (75.9-82.7%).ConclusionFollowing mild SARS-CoV-2 infection 10-30% of individuals may have negative immunoassay results. While lowered diagnostic thresholds may result in unacceptable specificity, our findings have implications for epidemiological analyses and result interpretation in individuals with a high pre-test probability. Samples from mild PCR-confirmed infections should be included in SARS-CoV-2 immunoassay evaluations.

Original publication




Journal article


BMC infectious diseases

Publication Date





Big Data Institute, Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK.


Humans, Ageusia, Immunoglobulin G, Antibodies, Viral, Immunoassay, Enzyme-Linked Immunosorbent Assay, Sensitivity and Specificity, Adult, Middle Aged, Health Personnel, Female, Male, Asymptomatic Infections, United Kingdom, Undiagnosed Diseases, COVID-19, Anosmia, COVID-19 Serological Testing