BACKGROUND. SARS-CoV-2 infection in Africa has been characterized by less severe disease than elsewhere but the profile of SARS-CoV-2 specific adaptive immunity in this largely asymptomatic spread has not been studied. METHODS. We collected blood and nasopharyngeal samples from rural Kenyans (n=80) without respiratory symptoms since 2019, had no contact with COVID-19 cases or received COVID-19 vaccines and were negative for current SARS-CoV-2 infection. We analyzed spike-specific antibodies and T cells specific for SARS-CoV-2 structural (membrane, nucleocapsid and spike) and accessory (ORF3a, ORF7, ORF8) proteins. Pre-pandemic samples collected in urban Nairobi, Kenya (n=13) between 2015-2016 and samples of mild-moderately symptomatic COVID-19 convalescents (n=36) living in the urban environment of Singapore were also studied. RESULTS. Among asymptomatic Kenyans, we detected anti-spike antibodies in 41.0% and T cell responses against ≥2 SARS-CoV-2 proteins in 82.5%. The pre-pandemic samples from Nairobi had low-level, monospecific responses. Furthermore, distinct from cellular immunity in European and Asian COVID-19 convalescents, strong T cell immunogenicity was observed against viral accessory proteins (ORF3a, ORF8) and not structural proteins, as well as a higher IL-10/IFN-γ ratio cytokine profile. CONCLUSIONS. The high incidence of T cell responses against different SARS-CoV-2 proteins in largely seronegative participants suggests that serosurveys underestimate SARS-CoV-2 prevalence in settings where asymptomatic infections prevail. Similar observations have been made with other coronavirus infections such as MERS and SARS-CoV-1. The functional and antigen-specific profile of SARS-CoV-2 specific T cells in these African individuals suggests that genetic or environmental factors play a role in the development of protective antiviral immunity. FUNDINGS. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Division of Global Health Protection; the Singapore Ministry of Health’s National Medical Research Council.


Taraz Samandari, Joshua Ongalo, Kimberly McCarthy, Richard K. Biegon, Philister Madiega, Anne Mithika, Joseph Orinda, Grace M. Mboya, Patrick Mwaura, Omu Anzala, Clayton Onyango, Fredrick O. Oluoch, Eric M. Osoro, Charles-Antoine Dutertre, Nicole Tan, Shou Kit Hang, Smrithi Hariharaputran, David C. Lye, Amy Herman-Roloff, Nina Le Bert, Antonio Bertoletti


Download this citation for these citation managers:

Or, download this citation in these formats:

If you experience problems using these citation formats, send us feedback.