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INTRODUCTION: Family studies of antiviral immunity provide an opportunity to assess virus-specific immunity in infected and highly exposed individuals, as well as to examine the dynamics of viral infection within families. Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 between family members represented a major route for viral spread during the early stages of the pandemic, due to the nature of SARS-CoV-2 transmission through close contacts. METHODS: Here, humoral and cellular immunity is explored in 264 SARS-CoV-2 infected, exposed or unexposed individuals from 81 families in the United Kingdom sampled in the winter of 2020 before widespread vaccination and infection. RESULTS: We describe robust cellular and humoral immunity into COVID-19 convalescence, albeit with marked heterogeneity between families and between individuals. T-cell response magnitude is associated with male sex and older age by multiple linear regression. SARS-CoV-2-specific T-cell responses in seronegative individuals are widespread, particularly in adults and in individuals exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through an infected family member. The magnitude of this response is associated with the number of seropositive family members, with a greater number of seropositive individuals within a family leading to stronger T-cell immunity in seronegative individuals. DISCUSSION: These results support a model whereby exposure to SARS-CoV-2 promotes T-cell immunity in the absence of an antibody response. The source of these seronegative T-cell responses to SARS-CoV-2 has been suggested as cross-reactive immunity to endemic coronaviruses that is expanded upon SARS-CoV-2 exposure. However, in this study, no association between HCoV-specific immunity and seronegative T-cell immunity to SARS-CoV-2 is identified, suggesting that de novo T-cell immunity may be generated in seronegative SARS-CoV-2 exposed individuals.

Original publication




Journal article


Front Immunol

Publication Date





COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, T-cells, exposed seronegative, family