A small study confirms that a pregnant woman infected with the coronavirus may be able to spread it to her fetus.
Researchers from Italy said Thursday that they examined 31 women with COVID-19 who gave birth to babies in March and April. They found signs of the virus in several samples of cord blood, placenta and, in one case, breast milk.
Women shouldn’t panic. This does not mean that there are viable viruses in these places and “it is too early to issue guidelines” or to change care, said the study leader, Dr. Claudio Fenizia, an immunology specialist at the University of Milan.
But it deserves more studies, especially about women who have been infected earlier in pregnancy than these women, said Fenizia, who discussed the results at a medical conference held online about the pandemic.
Since the pandemic began, doctors have wondered if an infection could occur in the womb. HIV, Zika and some other viruses can infect a fetus in this way. Several early reports from China suggested that the coronavirus could also occur, although doctors suspect that these women transmitted the virus to their babies during or after birth.
The new study included women in three hospitals during the peak of the outbreak in northern Italy. The genetic material of the virus was found in an umbilical cord blood sample, two vaginal swabs and a breast milk sample. The researchers also found specific anti-coronavirus antibodies in umbilical cord blood and milk.
In one case, “there is strong evidence that the newborn was born positive because we found the virus in the umbilical cord blood and placenta,”
In another case, a newborn antibody to the coronavirus had to not cross the placenta so it was not from the mother and was “due to the direct exposure of the fetus to the virus,” said Fenizia.
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In any case, the possibility of fetal infection appears to be relatively rare, he said. Only two of the newborns tested positive for the coronavirus at birth and none became ill.
Dr. Ashley Roman, a pregnancy specialist at NYU Langone Health, said that she and colleagues had also discovered virus particles on the fetal side of the placenta in several of the eleven cases examined. The new report adds evidence that transmission in the womb is possible, but it appears to be rare and does not cause serious problems in infants, she said.
“The most important thing that pregnant women need to know is that it is important to distance yourself socially. It is important to wear a mask and wash your hands,” said Roman. “Women don’t have to be completely cut off from society, but they should be concerned about the effects of COVID on their own health during pregnancy.”
Dr. Anton Pozniak, conference leader and virus expert at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital in London, said the impact of Italian research must “be worked out”.
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Children under 3 years of age rarely develop coronavirus. “I would assume that transmission to babies is not harmful,” he said.
UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Agency, recommends new mothers with COVID-19 to wear a mask while breastfeeding, he added.