A serological assay is used to detect the presence of certain types of viruses in patient serum. Serum is the strawcolored liquid fraction of blood plasma from which clotting factors have been removed. Serum can be used in a direct assay called a hemagglutination assay to detect specific types of viruses in the patient’s sample. Hemagglutination is the agglutination (clumping) together of erythrocytes (red blood cells). Many viruses produce surface proteins or spikes called hemagglutinins that can bind to receptors on the membranes of erythrocytes and cause the cells to agglutinate. Hemagglutination is observable without using the microscope, but this method does not always differentiate between infectious and noninfectious viral particles, since both can agglutinate erythrocytes.
To identify a specific pathogenic virus using hemagglutination, we must use an indirect approach. Proteins called antibodies, generated by the patient’s immune system to fight a specific virus, can be used to bind to components such as hemagglutinins that are uniquely associated with specific types of viruses. The binding of the antibodies with the hemagglutinins found on the virus subsequently prevent erythrocytes from directly interacting with the virus. So when erythrocytes are added to the antibody-coated viruses, there is no appearance of agglutination; agglutination has been inhibited. We call these types of indirect assays for virus-specific antibodies hemagglutination inhibition (HAI) assays. HAI can be used to detect the presence of antibodies specific to many types of viruses that may be causing or have caused an infection in a patient even months or years after infection.
Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/microbiology