Nasal host response-based screening for undiagnosed respiratory viruses: a pathogen surveillance and detection study

Nagarjuna R. Cheemarla, Amelia Hanron, Joseph R. Fauver, Jason Bishai, Timothy A. Watkins, Anderson F. Brito, Dejian Zhao, Tara Alpert, Chantal B.F. Vogels, Albert I. Ko, Wade L. Schulz, Marie L. Landry, Nathan D. Grubaugh, David van Dijk, Ellen F. Foxman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Background: Symptomatic patients who test negative for common viruses are an important possible source of unrecognised or emerging pathogens, but metagenomic sequencing of all samples is inefficient because of the low likelihood of finding a pathogen in any given sample. We aimed to determine whether nasopharyngeal CXCL10 screening could be used as a strategy to enrich for samples containing undiagnosed viruses. Methods: In this pathogen surveillance and detection study, we measured CXCL10 concentrations from nasopharyngeal swabs from patients in the Yale New Haven health-care system, which had been tested at the Yale New Haven Hospital Clinical Virology Laboratory (New Haven, CT, USA). Patients who tested negative for a panel of respiratory viruses using multiplex PCR during Jan 23–29, 2017, or March 3–14, 2020, were included. We performed host and pathogen RNA sequencing (RNA-Seq) and analysis for viral reads on samples with CXCL10 higher than 1 ng/mL or CXCL10 testing and quantitative RT-PCR (RT-qPCR) for SARS-CoV-2. We used RNA-Seq and cytokine profiling to compare the host response to infection in samples that were virus positive (rhinovirus, seasonal coronavirus CoV-NL63, or SARS-CoV-2) and virus negative (controls). Findings: During Jan 23–29, 2017, 359 samples were tested for ten viruses on the multiplex PCR respiratory virus panel (RVP). 251 (70%) were RVP negative. 60 (24%) of 251 samples had CXCL10 higher than 150 pg/mL and were identified for further analysis. 28 (47%) of 60 CXCL10-high samples were positive for seasonal coronaviruses. 223 (89%) of 251 samples were PCR negative for 15 viruses and, of these, CXCL10-based screening identified 32 (13%) samples for further analysis. Of these 32 samples, eight (25%) with CXCL10 concentrations higher than 1 ng/mL and sufficient RNA were selected for RNA-Seq. Microbial RNA analysis showed the presence of influenza C virus in one sample and revealed RNA reads from bacterial pathobionts in four (50%) of eight samples. Between March 3 and March 14, 2020, 375 (59%) of 641 samples tested negative for 15 viruses on the RVP. 32 (9%) of 375 samples had CXCL10 concentrations ranging from 100 pg/mL to 1000 pg/mL and four of those were positive for SARS-CoV-2. CXCL10 elevation was statistically significant, and a distinguishing feature was found in 28 (8%) of 375 SARS-CoV-2-negative samples versus all four SARS-CoV-2-positive samples (p=4·4 × 10–5). Transcriptomic signatures showed an interferon response in virus-positive samples and an additional neutrophil-high hyperinflammatory signature in samples with high amounts of bacterial pathobionts. The CXCL10 cutoff for detecting a virus was 166·5 pg/mL for optimal sensitivity and 1091·0 pg/mL for specificity using a clinic-ready automated microfluidics-based immunoassay. Interpretation: These results confirm CXCL10 as a robust nasopharyngeal biomarker of viral respiratory infection and support host response-based screening followed by metagenomic sequencing of CXCL10-high samples as a practical approach to incorporate clinical samples into pathogen discovery and surveillance efforts. Funding: National Institutes of Health, the Hartwell Foundation, the Gruber Foundation, Fast Grants for COVID-19 research from the Mercatus Center, and the Huffman Family Donor Advised Fund.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)e38-e46
JournalThe Lancet Microbe
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Microbiology
  • Microbiology (medical)
  • Infectious Diseases
  • Virology


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