Researchers just made a startling discovery about COVID-19 and newborns

Ahead of clinically approved COVID-19 therapeutics, virologists are committed to identifying every viable route of transmission.

In the early months of our pandemic, there were reports of newborns contracting the respiratory disease from their mothers while still in the womb but the mechanisms were unclear.

New data authored by a team of researchers based out of Milan, Italy recently determined that pregnant women who are infected with SARS-CoV-2 can potentially transmit the virus to their fetuses via the placenta. Still, as was initially expected, this outcome seems to be somewhat rare.

The authors presented their findings at the online at the virtual AIDS 2020 conference. 

Vertical transmission of the novel coronavirus from mother to child during pregnancy

Among the 31 infected pregnant women involved in the new study, two newborns tested positive for COVID-19 on delivery.

It’s true that this only accounts for a little more than 6% of the study pool, but it means the vertical transplacental transmission of SARS-CoV-2 is possible.

Even if the infected mother contracted the coronavirus months prior to her baby’s birth, the virus may still be detected in the placental tissue and baby’s blood.

“This is the first ringing bell that should raise awareness about a topic that is not really well studied,” explained  Claudio Fenizia, an assistant professor of immunology at the University of Milan, who led the study.

There appear to be other reliable indicators of infection other than positive blood tests. Infected cases were consistently linked by inflamed placentas before analysis was completed.

SARS-CoV-2 material and antibodies were subsequently found in the umbilical cord, blood as well as the mothers’ breast milk.

Miraculously, seven of the mothers whose babies were not infected with coronavirus effectively transmitted coronavirus antibodies.

This may help explain why both of the newborns who contracted COVID-19 completed viral clearance fairly quickly after birth. These were also infected while their mothers were late-term.

No developmental complications were observed in either case.

Andrew Shennan, an obstetrics professor at King’s College London hastened to assure the public about the rarity of successful transplacental transmission ahead of the new study.

Dr. Shennan paired his assessment with a citation of data from an English study of 244 babies born to infected mothers, of which 95% exhibited no sign of the virus. “Women can remain reassured that pregnancy is not a significant risk factor for them or their babies with COVID-19,” Dr. Shennan commented in a media release.

Similarly, Marian Knight, a professor of maternal and child population health at Britain’s Oxford University, agreed that the new data is significant in our fight to understand SARS-CoV-2 before submitting a throat-clearing suggesting that the very same findings should not be a  major worry for pregnant women.

“Among the many thousands of babies born to mothers with SARS-CoV-2 infection, a very few have been reported to also have a positive test – around 1-2%,” Knight said. “It is still unclear whether the virus passes across the placenta; this report provides evidence that it may.”
More research needs to be done to determine if vertical transmission tells us more about immunology or contact tracing down the line.