'No evidence' newborns can catch the coronavirus from their mothers

‘No evidence’ newborns can catch the coronavirus from their mothers in the womb, study claims

  • Out of 101 babies born to mothers carrying the virus, only two tested positive 
  • But there was no evidence they caught if from skin to skin contact or breastmilk 
  • They showed little evidence of illness, researchers in New York said
  • Only basic precautions were used such as face mask wearing and hand washing 

Newborns face no risk of catching Covid-19 from their mothers in the womb, a study has claimed. 

Out of 101 babies born to coronavirus-infected mothers in New York, only two tested positive in the two weeks after their delivery.

Doctors don’t know exactly how the babies did catch the virus but insisted there was ‘no evidence of vertical transmission’.

This occurs when it is passed from mother to baby immediately before or after birth, either through the placenta, in the breast milk, or through direct contact.   

Experts claim their study proves only basic infection control measures are needed to protect newborns from the disease, such as the mother wearing a face mask during breastfeeding and washing her hands.

Babies do not need to be separated from their Covid-19 positive mothers, academics said.

And they added that breastfeeding should carry on as normal because there is no evidence this raises the risk of transmission. It may even be protective because breast milk contains antibodies against viruses the mother has had, such as Covid-19.

Neither infant who tested positive had any respiratory symptoms of the disease and both recovered well, the doctors said.

Researchers in New York said only the basic infection control measures are needed to protect the baby, such as the mother wearing a face mask and washing her hands

The study was based on the outcomes of the first 101 newborns born to Covid-19 positive mothers at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital or NewYork-Presbyterian Allen Hospital from March 13 to April 24.

To reduce the risk of transmitting SARS-CoV-2 to newborns after delivery, hospital staff practiced social distancing, wore masks, and Covid-19 positive mothers were put in private rooms rather than maternity wards. 

Most of the newborns were roomed with their mothers but placed in cribs six feet away from their mother when resting.

Three-quarters of NHS trusts are still not allowing birth partners due to the coronavirus.

Data collected for 144 trusts in England, Scotland and Wales by an independent doula, and analysed by the Guardian in September, showed half of the trusts and health boards covered by the research were restricting partners from attending at least two of three key moments: the 12-week scan, the 20-week scan and the duration of labour.

Just 23 per cent of trusts are allowing a birthing partner to be present at the hospital for the duration of labour, only allowing support in the later ‘established’ phase.

The Mail on Sunday is campaigning to end the scandal, which has left women to give birth or receive devastating news of miscarriages without support.

Boris Johnson has backed campaign to end lone births, saying ‘no woman should have to go through labour alone’. 

The Prime Minister said it is of ‘upmost importance’ that every hospital allows partners to be present in what are ‘incredibly special moments in people’s lives’.

The Government has published guidelines on how hospitals can safely do this, but many Trusts are refusing to implement it. Mr Johnson told The Mail on Sunday: ‘No woman should have to go through labour alone without the support of partners or loved ones.’

‘The guidance has changed to ensure pregnant women can have someone with them for vital appointments and throughout the birth of their child.’

He said Ministers have been working with NHS England to ensure every hospital follows the guidance. Since The Mail on Sunday launched the campaign last weekend, several Trusts have performed U-turns.

Sir Simon Stevens, the NHS chief executive, said: ‘Wherever possible mums should be able to be accompanied by their partners for scans, antenatal visits and of course for childbirth. The Mail on Sunday is quite right to highlight the importance of getting this right.’

A petition to allow partners at all stages of labour into all hospitals has attracted more than 418,000 signatures. Joeli Brearley of campaign group Pregnant Then Screwed said: ‘Pregnant women must be a priority considering the impact stress has on a growing foetus.’ 

Breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact with babies were strongly encouraged to promote bonding, provided the mothers wore masks and washed their hands and breasts with soap and water. 

Senior author of the study Cynthia Gyamfi-Bannerman, a professor of women’s health in obstetrics and gynaecology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said: ‘During the pandemic, we continued to do what we normally do to promote bonding and development in healthy newborns, while taking a few extra precautions to minimise the risk of exposure to the virus.’  

Only two of the newborns tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 but neither developed any symptoms suggestive of Covid-19 such as a fever, cough or shortness of breath.

One baby never underwent retesting but remained well on follow-up, and the other had negative results when they were swabbed again. 

The researchers were unable to pinpoint how the babies became infected.

They wrote: ‘Two tests in two newborns (1.4% of tests) had indeterminate results… The clinical courses of the two newborns with indeterminate results were not previously described in detail.’

However, they said there was ‘no evidence of vertical transmission’, which scientists have previously said cannot be ruled out. 

Professor Gyamfi-Bannerman said: ‘Our findings should reassure expectant mothers with COVID-19 that basic infection-control measures during and after childbirth, such as wearing a mask and engaging in breast and hand hygiene when holding or breastfeeding a baby, protected newborns from infection in this series.’

The science on the risk of Covid-19 transmission during pregnancy and while breastfeeding has been limited during the pandemic. 

Therefore, recommendations for pregnant women and new mothers vary between countries and health organisations.

In the UK, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggests mothers should share a room with their babies and breastfeed if they wish, but with appropriate precautions.

Together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the NHS, they say the benefits of breastfeeding outweigh the potential risks of Covid-19 spread. 

The NHS says there is ‘no evidence coronavirus can be passed on to your baby in breast milk’, and says mothers and babies should be able to have skin-to-skin contact unless the baby is unwell and needs care in the neonatal unit. 

But in the US, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested considering a temporary separation of the newborn from a mother, and that mothers may need to express breast milk.  

WHAT EVIDENCE IS THERE BABIES CAN CATCH COVID-19 IN THE WOMB? 

Babies may be at risk of catching the coronavirus from their mother during pregnancy, scientists have previously warned, but there is no clear proof.

In April, Chinese doctors published the case reports of four newborns who tested positive for the infection within a few days of a Caesarean delivery.

Three had been isolated as soon as they were born because their mothers had been diagnosed before birth. The fourth mother and baby tested positive a fortnight later.

The researchers said they ‘couldn’t rule out’ that the babies had picked up the virus while still in the womb via the placenta – however, there was no direct evidence of this.

It’s possible the babies contracted the killer virus from the hospital, but the odds were ‘low’ due to special infection control measures in place at the time, the scientists said.

Researchers from Italy said on July 9 that they had found signs of the virus in several samples of umbilical cord blood, the placenta and, in one case, breast milk when studying 31 women with Covid-19 who delivered babies in March and April. 

In one case, ‘there’s strong evidence suggesting that the newborn was born already positive because we found the virus in the umbilical cord blood and in the placenta,’ said study leader, Dr Claudio Fenizia, an immunology specialist at the University of Milan.

In any case, the possibility of fetal infection seems relatively rare, he said. Two of the babies in the study had tested positive for Covid-19.

The Royal College of OG says: ‘Emerging evidence suggests that transmission from mother to baby during pregnancy or birth (vertical transmission) might be possible.’

This is when a disease passes from mother to baby during the period immediately before and after birth, for example across the placenta, in the breast milk, or through direct contact.

The college emphasised that in all reported cases of newborn babies developing coronavirus very soon after birth, the baby was fine.

And there is no evidence right now to suggest an increased risk of miscarriage.  

Some babies born to women with symptoms of coronavirus have been born prematurely. It is unclear whether coronavirus caused this or the doctors made the decision for the baby to be born early because the woman was unwell.  

Lead author Dr Dani Dumitriu said: ‘These recommendations were made in the absence of data on rates of mother-to-newborn SARS-CoV-2 transmission and are based on experience with mother-newborn transmission of other infectious diseases.’

‘But some recommendations conflict with what we know about the developmental benefits of early breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact. 

‘Our study shows that these measures may not be necessary for healthy newborns with Covid-positive mums.’ 

Professor Gyamfi-Bannerman, also a maternal-foetal medicine expert at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said: ‘We think it’s particularly important that mothers with Covid-19 have the opportunity to directly breastfeed their newborns.

‘Breast milk is known to protect newborns against numerous pathogens, and it may help protect newborns against infection with SARS-CoV-2. 

‘Most studies have not found SARS-CoV-2 in breast milk, and breast milk has been found to contain antibodies against the virus.’

Breast milk contains antibodies passed on from the mother, which boost a baby’s immune system and help it fight infections and viruses.

Antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 have been found in the breast milk of mothers who have had Covid-19. 

It is not clear if antibodies would be present in the breast milk during infection as the proteins can take some time to build up. But they would be in the weeks following illness. 

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, supports the findings of separate research in New York of 120 babies born at three hospitals.

None tested positive for the disease after being born to infected mothers, according to the paper published in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health in July.

When some 82 were checked again a week later, they were still negative even though the majority had shared a room with their mothers and three-quarters were being breastfed. 

But research on whether a baby can catch the coronavirus before birth, while in the womb, is murky.

Some scientists are adamant there is evidence of transmission in the womb because traces of the coronavirus have been found in the mother’s placenta. 

But doctors admit it is difficult to find whether the baby just picked the virus up during birth or in the hospital very soon after birth.

As for the mother’s health, researchers at Oxford have said pregnant women are at no greater risk of developing severe Covid-19 than other women.

Of 427 mothers-to-be admitted to NHS hospitals with the life-threatening coronavirus between March 1 and April 14, only one in ten needed treatment in ICU.

This is no higher than the figure for non-pregnant women of the same age, the researchers said.

Pregnant women from BAME backgrounds were more than four times likely to be admitted to hospital with the infection, in-keeping with figures from the general population, and obesity, having pre-existing health conditions, and being over the age of 35 also raised the odds.  

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