A new study has revealed that breastfeeding mothers with COVID-19 can’t transmit the virus through breast milk to their babies, but will rather confer milk-borne antibodies that can neutralise the virus.
Findings from the research provide evidence that COVID-19 positive mothers should not be separated from their newborn children
The research was carried out by researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Centre, in collaboration with several other universities was published in mBio, an open-access journal.
The study titled, “Characterisation of SARS-CoV-2 RNA, antibodies, and neutralizing capacity in milk produced by women with COVID-19,” analyzed 37 milk samples submitted by 18 women diagnosed with COVID-19.
The URMC team led by a professor in the Department of Paediatrics, Antti Seppo, had the medical director of Lactation Services and Programs, Casey Rosen-Carol, and associate professor in the Department of Paediatrics and chief of Paediatric Allergy and Immunology, Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo as co-authors.
Two professors in the Department of Microbiology and immunology, Mark Sangster and David Topham, did the primary work of measuring antibody assay levels.
According to Medical Xpress, the full research team also included scientists from the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Brigham Women’s Hospital, Harvard Medical School, and the University of Idaho.
The researchers revealed that they enrolled nearly 50 women who were diagnosed with COVID-19 and followed their progress with the disease for as long as two months.
They noted that none of the milk samples were found to contain the virus, while nearly two-thirds of the samples contained two antibodies specific to the virus.
According to them, “Critically, this study provides evidence that COVID-19 positive mothers should not be separated from their newborn children.
“At the onset of the pandemic, major health organizations have often provided contradictory advice on whether this separation was necessary. This report will hopefully offer new clarity on guidance for post-natal mothers.”
Giving an insight into their discovery, they said, “We found high levels of IgA—a common antibody in blood and other body fluids—in their breast milk. “IgA’s migrate in mucosal transfer, therefore this is encouraging information that mothers transfer these antibodies.”
A co-author, an assistant professor in the Department of Paediatrics at URMC, Bridget Young, explained that the study was initiated to address the lack of existing research into COVID-19 in breast milk, adding that the next steps will be to see if the initial results are replicated in larger samples.
“This work needs to be replicated in larger cohorts. Additionally, we now need to understand if the COVID-19 vaccine impacts breast milk in the same way.
“We only want to sequester a mother from her baby if it’s medically necessary.
“However, the issue was very confusing for practitioners who don’t have sufficient evidence.
“These early results suggest that breast milk from mothers who have had a COVID-19 infection contains specific and active antibodies against the virus, and that they do not transfer the virus through milk. This is great news,” she said.
Young revealed that the URMC was funded with over $130,000 by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for the research.
She noted that the initial study published in mBio, reported on the first group of 18 women that submitted milk samples.
The co-author further said results from the larger study will soon be released, adding that hopefully, it will reinforce the initial findings.
A similar study published in 2020, and which corroborates the new study, noted that besides being the best source of nutrition for babies and protection against illness, breast milk that contains COVID-19 antibodies can protect infants.
The study authors advised nursing mothers infected with COVID-19 to continue to breastfeed their babies while undergoing treatment and much longer after they might have been cured.
Assistant Professor of Medicine, Division of Infectious Diseases of the Icahn School of Medicine, Mount Sinai, New York, Dr. Rebecca Powell, who led the study, explained that in carrying out the study, 15 milk samples were obtained and tested for reactivity from donors previously infected with COVID-19, while 10 negative control samples were also part of the research.
“The data and findings from the study indicate that there is a strong COVID-19 immune response in human milk after infection in the majority of individuals and that a comprehensive study of this response is highly warranted,” the study concludes.
She urged nursing mothers infected with the COVID-19 to continue to breastfeed their babies throughout the illness and beyond, adding “Because other researchers have shown that transmission does not occur via milk and we have determined that antibodies are almost certainly there, and may protect their babies from infection.”
According to the head of WHO Food and Nutrition Action in the Health Systems unit, Dr. Laurence Grummer-Strawn, during the 2020 World Breastfeeding Week, where he appealed for greater support for breastfeeding the UN agency has been very clear in its recommendations that absolute breastfeeding should continue.
“We have never documented, anywhere around the world, any (COVID-19) transmission through breastmilk,” Grummer-Strawn said.
He noted that exclusive breastfeeding for six months has many benefits for the infant and mother which far outweighs any risk from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The WHO official said that the advantages included the fact that breastmilk, including milk which is expressed, provides lifesaving antibodies that protect babies against many childhood illnesses.
“This is only one of the reasons why new mothers should initiate skin-to-skin contact and room-in with their babies quickly.
“The risks of transmission of the COVID-19 virus from a COVID-positive mother to her baby seem to be extremely low”, the WHO official said.
He explained that the conclusion followed the testing of the breastmilk of many mothers around the world in a variety of studies.
Grummer-Strawn said although a few samples had the virus follow-up, tests showed that the virus was not viable and could not be infective.
Recall that in August 2020, the World Health Organisation said the risk of COVID-19 infection through breastfeeding is negligible and has never been documented.
In April 2020, Professor of Medical Virology at the College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Prof. Sunday Omilabu, during an online interactive session with members of the Health Writers’ Association of Nigeria in Lagos, said COVID-19 has not been established to be transmittable from an infected mother to child.
According to him, “Talking about pregnant women and breastfeeding, infected mothers, who we have had from our little experience during this COVID-19 outbreak, have no virus in their breastmilk.
“And this is not far-fetched because the virus is a localised infection in the respiratory tract.
“It takes a long time before the virus moves into the bloodstream.
“It also takes a long time before the virus moves into other body fluids and that is what we’ve seen in this instance. It is localised, it is not a systemic viral infection,” he said.
He, however, said further studies still have to be carried out as COVID-19 is still a new disease.
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