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Distinct SARS-CoV-2 Antibody Responses Elicited by Natural Infection and mRNA Vaccination


We analyzed data from two ongoing COVID-19 longitudinal serological surveys in Orange County, CA., between April 2020 and March 2021. A total of 8,476 finger stick blood specimens were collected before and after an aggressive mRNA vaccination campaign. IgG levels were determined using a multiplex antigen microarray containing 10 SARS-CoV-2 antigens, 4 SARS, 3 MERS, 12 Common CoV, and 8 Influenza antigens. Twenty-six percent of 3,347 specimens from unvaccinated Orange County residents in December 2020 were SARS-CoV-2 seropositive. The Ab response was predominantly against nucleocapsid (NP), full length spike and the spike S2 domain. Anti-receptor binding domain (RBD) reactivity was low and there was no cross-reactivity against SARS S1 or SARS RBD. An aggressive mRNA vaccination campaign at the UCI Medical Center started on December 16, 2020 and 6,724 healthcare workers were vaccinated within 3 weeks. Seroprevalence increased from 13% in December to 79% in January, 93% in February and 99% in March. mRNA vaccination induced much higher Ab levels especially against the RBD domain and significant cross-reactivity against SARS RBD and S1 was also observed. Nucleocapsid protein Abs can be used to distinguish individuals in a population of vaccinees to classify those who have been previously infected and those who have not, because nucleocapsid is not in the vaccine. Previously infected individuals developed higher Ab titers to the vaccine than those who have not been previously exposed. These results indicate that mRNA vaccination rapidly induces a much stronger and broader Ab response than SARS-CoV-2 infection.

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