Examining antibody response to SARS-CoV-2 in Sierra Leone

Excerpt from the article Fogarty awards $3.3M in COVID-19 supplements to support research, training published in Global Health Matters by the Fogarty International Center: 

Sierra Leone has experienced much lower COVID-19 caseloads and much less disease severity than countries in other parts of Africa. Preliminary testing done on blood samples collected prior to the pandemic showed Sierra Leoneans had a higher antibody response to SARS-CoV-2, SARS-CoV, MERS and and other human coronavirus strains than their U.S. counterparts. 

“One theory is that there may be other circulating coronaviruses in that part of the world that don’t necessarily cause disease—or severe disease—yet may be providing some level of protection,” said Vanderbilt University’s Dr. Troy Moon.

Vanderbilt and its partners at Tulane have been using a Fogarty grant to help build research capacity in Sierra Leone in the wake of the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak. With supplemental funding, Moon and his colleagues will expand on this preliminary data to determine the percentage of participants who are seropositive to different human coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-2, both before and during the pandemic, but prior to vaccination. In addition the team will determine the proportion of positive-testing patients whose serum has neutralizing antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. Finally, the team will determine if this pre-existing immunity has any impact on the immune response in their cohort of participants following COVID-19 vaccination.

The onsite work will be led by Sierra Leonean investigator Dr. Robert Samuels, who recently trained at Vanderbilt as a scholar with support from the original Fogarty grant. Samuels will apply his newly acquired knowledge of research methods and management to lead and oversee the day-to-day implementation of the study, while gaining hands-on experience.

Moon believes this research could provide essential clues to further understand how coronaviruses operate. “I think it opens up many questions as we try to better understand our immune response and coexistence with different respiratory pathogens and how that affects us at different time points when we see different illnesses,” he noted. “This is now the third pathologic coronavirus epidemic we've seen and one that probably will be with us for a long time. This is not going to be the last time we hear from coronaviruses.”