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Scientists launch study to find out if babies can get COVID-19 from their breast milk

Should women breastfeed during the pandemic? Scientists launch study to find out if babies can get COVID-19 from their mothers’ milk – or if it may contain protective antibodies

  • Washington State University is looking to follow 50 women with a recent positive coronavirus test for two months 
  • Researchers will compared half of the group with breastfed babies and the other half with non-breastfed babies and test samples for the virus 
  • Breastmilk samples will also be examined for antibodies to determine if mothers can pass on protective immune cells to their children 

A national study is being launched by Washington State University to determine whether or not babies can contract the novel coronavirus from breastfeeding.

While scientists have long believed that ‘breast is best’ when it comes to feeding newborns, many questions surrounding the benefits and potential risks are still unanswered.

It is still unclear if the virus, known as SARS-COV-2, is present in a mother’s milk and if it can be transmitted to an infant.

Additionally, it’s also unknown if antibodies can be found in breast milk and, if so, can protect babies from developing COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. 

Researchers from Washington State University will compared 25 women with breastfed babies and 25 with non-breastfed babies and test samples for the virus and antibodies (file image)

Limited research has been conducted on this topic up to this point, but the results have been mixed. 

Some studies have found no virus in human milk while others have detected viral RNA in just certain milk samples.

For example, at least two studies, one from China and another from the US, found no evidence of SARS-CoV-2 in human breastmilk.

But a report from the World Health Organization (WHO) found that, of 46 breast milk samples from mothers with the virus, 43 came came back negative while three tested positive for particles.   

However, the team says that even if viral genetic material is found in breastmilk, it doesn’t mean it’s infectious or can be spread to babies. 

‘We don’t have the answers right now,’ said Dr Courtney Meehan, a professor of anthropology in the WSU College of Arts and Sciences, in a press release.

‘We really don’t want to separate moms and babies unless we know the risks outweigh the benefits, and the evidence for that is not there.’

In another study from the Icahn School of Medicine in New York found that breast milk from infected mothers may contain antibodies to the novel coronavirus that could be protective for babies, 

It’s why the WHO currently recommends that mothers with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 be encouraged continue to breastfeeding. 

Researchers are in the process of recruiting women 18 years old and older who have tested positive in the last week for coronavirus and have children up to age two.

Overall, the team plans to follow 50 participants – 25 women with breastfed babies and 25 women with non-breastfed babies – for two months.

All mothers will receive kits, which they will use to collect samples from their infants and themselves, including breast milk.

Researchers will test the samples for the new virus and antibodies, and compared outcomes between coronavirus-infected moms with breastfed and non-breastfed babies. 

Additionally, all participants will be interviewed about their family history, COVID-19 symptoms and how they feed their children.

‘Our study will provide evidence to inform policy recommendations, which will help ease the anxiety that both health care practitioners and moms are feeling due to the current vacuum of information,’ Meehan said.   

The research team at WSU is being joined by scientists at the University of Idaho, the University of Washington and Tulane University.