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Detection of Nucleocapsid Antibody to SARS-CoV-2 is More Sensitive than Antibody to Spike Protein in COVID-19 Patients



Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the cause of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), is associated with respiratory-related disease and death. Assays to detect virus-specific antibodies are important to understand the prevalence of infection and the course of the immune response.


Quantitative measurements of plasma or serum antibodies to the nucleocapsid and spike proteins were analyzed using luciferase immunoprecipitation system assays in 100 cross-sectional or longitudinal samples from patients with SARS-CoV-2 infection. A subset of samples was tested both with and without heat inactivation.


At >14 days after symptom onset, antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 nucleocapsid protein showed 100% sensitivity and 100% specificity, whereas antibodies to spike protein were detected with 91% sensitivity and 100% specificity. Neither antibody levels nor the rate of seropositivity were significantly reduced by heat inactivation of samples. Analysis of daily samples from 6 patients with COVID-19 showed anti-nucleocapsid and spike protein antibodies appearing between days 8 and 14 after initial symptoms. Immunocompromised patients generally had a delayed antibody response to SARS-CoV-2, compared with immunocompetent patients.


Antibody to the nucleocapsid protein of SARS-CoV-2 is more sensitive than spike protein antibody for detecting early infection. Analyzing heat-inactivated samples with a luciferase immunoprecipitation system assay is a safe and sensitive method for detecting SARS-CoV-2 antibodies.

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