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Can Mothers Pass On Covid-19 Antibodies Through the Womb? Research Says Yes

Studies have shown that pregnant mothers are able pass COVID-19 antibodies to their unborn children via the placenta, providing greater immunities at birth.

May 24, 2021
Nora Tomer

Throughout the course of the pandemic, pregnant women have done everything in their power to protect themselves and their babies from harm. From social distancing to fastidious disinfecting, there is little these soon-to-be mothers would not do. 

Now, these women may breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the COVID-19 vaccine is not just a protective measure for them, but for their infants as well. Studies have shown that pregnant mothers are able pass COVID-19 antibodies to their unborn children via the placenta, providing greater immunities at birth.

Baby Addison

A woman known as Mary-Kate, a frontline health care worker in South Florida, has made headlines recently for being the first reported US case of delivering a baby born with COVID-19 antibodies

Mary-Kate received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine while she was 36 weeks pregnant. Three weeks later, Mary-Kate gave birth to her daughter, Addison. After taking blood samples from her umbilical cord, Addison was shown to have protective COVID-19 antibodies present in her body. 

This case was reported by Drs. Paul Gilbert and Chad Rudnick of Florida Atlantic University. Although their research has yet to be peer reviewed, their findings have been echoed by others including researchers from Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian. 

In their larger study published within the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 88 New York mothers who contracted COVID-19 during their pregnancy had their resulting infants tested for the presence of COVID-19 antibodies. 78% of these babies were found to have the antibodies.

While the data in both of these studies seems promising, there is more follow-up work to be done before any conclusive announcements can be made. In the case of the Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian research, larger efforts are being made to determine how antibodies are passed on through cases of vaccination versus previous infection. 

A newborn baby lays on a white backdrop sleeping, swaddled in a blue cloth.
Specific antibodies, known as Immunoglobulin Gs, are passed from mother to baby through the placenta.

The Importance of Antibodies

With all the fuss surrounding COVID-19 antibodies lately, it is vital to ask what exactly antibodies do. To put it simply, antibodies are the immune system’s way of marking foreign pathogens for destruction before they take hold in the body and make us ill.

Along with antibodies, there are several other components to the immune system that battle disease, such as:

  • Helper T cells that remember pathogens from previous encounters and learn to alert B cells and Killer T cells
  • Killer T cells which destroy the pathogen as well as any infected cells
  • And B cells that create new antibodies 

Without antibodies, we would be defenseless against any run of the mill cold, let along a dangerous illness like COVID-19. And for higher risk groups like pregnant women and newborns, antibodies can make the difference when it comes to recovery from COVID-19. 

While older children seem to feel the effects of the virus much less, newborns and infants under age one are more likely to have serious and even life threatening symptoms upon contracting COVID-19. Newborns have small, immature airways, making any respiratory issue especially dangerous. So, the fact that newborns are able to receive resistance against COVID-19 via inoculated mothers means they may have another barrier of protection against the disease.

A young woman stands in a kitchen next to an empty high chair. She is speaking on the phone while preparing a bottle of baby formula.
Although there are trace amounts of antibodies present in breast milk, scientists are unsure how much of a benefit they provide.

What About Breast Milk?

With news spreading that mothers may be able to pass on antibodies to their infants, many have questioned whether breast milk may provide similar benefits. Unfortunately, the jury is still out. Studies have found trace amounts of COVID-19 antibodies within breast milk, but it is unclear how long these antibodies last and just what their level of efficacy is. Dr. Jill K. Baird from the Providence Portland Medical Center noted, “...we don’t know what dose of milk a baby would need to get some kind of protection. We also don’t know how long after a woman is vaccinated the antibodies stay in the milk.”

Despite this and with postpartum women not currently considering part of priority vaccine roll out groups, some mothers have become desperate enough to barter for breast milk from those who have contracted the virus previously or who have been vaccinated in the hopes it may protect their children.

A woman sits with her sleeve rolled up as she is injected with a syringe. Her shirt is yellow with plaid panels and an embroidered detail of two cats.
Vaccination is one of the key steps in ending the spread of COVID-19 once and for all.

Worries Around Vaccination

Although a variety of scientific studies are pointing toward pros rather than cons when it comes to vaccination for pregnant women, many remain hesitant. In a study by Harvard University, it was reported that less than 45% of expecting mothers in the US are in favor of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. Reasons for this reluctance include concerns about safety, the reliability of public health networks, and distrust of routine vaccinations, a misconception the WHO listed as one of the top ten threats to global health.

In the face of these concerns, it is important that the public stays informed about scientific facts regarding the vaccine, including the fact that the popular Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are mRNA based. This means that the vaccine contains no live or dead virus. Instead, it carries an inert protein associated with COVID-19 which is then used to teach the body’s immune system how to spot and destroy COVID-19 on sight.

Mary-Kate, the mother of baby Addison, has stated that her biggest fear is misinformation regarding the vaccine. In response to pregnant women questioning whether they should pursue vaccination, Mary-Kate had this to say: “A couple hours or days of side effects from a vaccine, if any, I think is definitely worth it than getting COVID during your pregnancy.”

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