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COVID-19: Understanding SARS-CoV-2 infection in pregnant women and their babies

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Women and their babies are especially vulnerable to infection during pregnancy and the first weeks after birth. Thousands of pregnant women in the UK are likely to have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 –many with no symptoms. Professor Kirsty Le Doare at St George’s University of London is leading a study to find out how much of a problem this virus is for women and their babies. She hopes the findings will help reassure pregnant and breastfeeding women – and inform how to protect women and their babies from any potential risks, both now and in the future.

How are children’s lives affected now?

More than 700,000 babies are born in the UK each year.1 While certain bacterial or viral infections during pregnancy or soon after birth can cause harm for women and their babies, the potential risks of SARS-CoV-2 are so far unknown.

“Understandably, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised major concerns for pregnant women and their healthcare teams,” says Professor Le Doare.

Thankfully, the evidence to date suggests that pregnant women are at no greater risk of becoming seriously ill after infection with SARS-CoV-2 than other adults – and having the virus is unlikely to cause harm to their baby. But there are still many outstanding questions – such as whether the virus or protective antibodies are passed from the mother to her baby.

“Gaining a better understanding about how this infection affects pregnant women and their babies will help to inform their monitoring and care – both during and after pregnancy,” says Professor Le Doare.

How could this research help?

“We aim to establish how many pregnant women have been infected with the virus – and if their antibodies are passed to their babies, possibly providing some degree of immunity,” says Professor Le Doare.

The periCOVID study will screen pregnant women at 10 hospitals in England to identify those with SARS-CoV-2 infection, regardless of whether they have any symptoms or not – as well as including others who test positive for the virus elsewhere in the country.

“We will carry out laboratory tests on various bodily fluids and tissue to find out how many pregnant women have SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in their bloodstream – and whether or not they pass these to their baby via the placenta or during breastfeeding,” says Professor Le Doare.

The researchers will also explore the risk of the infection passing from mother to baby during pregnancy, delivery or breastfeeding by looking for live virus in samples.

We hope that our findings will help to reassure pregnant and breastfeeding women about how to safely care for their babies. It will also help inform future decision-making about vaccinating pregnant women to help protect them and their babies from infection.

Professor Le Doare

References

  1. Office for National Statistics, Vital statistics in the UK: births, deaths and marriages  https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/populationandmigration/populationestimates/datasets/vitalstatisticspopulationandhealthreferencetables  [website accessed 4th February 2021]
Project Leader Professor Kirsty Le Doare, BA(Hons) MBBS MSc (Oxon) PhD FRCPCH
Location Paediatric Infectious Research Group Institute for Infection and Immunity St George’s University of London
Project Team Professor Paul Heath, FRCPCH
Professor Asma Khalil, MD PhD FRCOG
Professor Shamez Ladhani, MD PhD FRCPCH
Professor Nick Andrews, PhD
Dr Sarah Sturrock, MBBS BSc
Other Locations Fetal Medicine Unit, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, St George’s University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust
Vaccine Preventable Diseases Centre for Infections and Statistics Unit, Public Health England, London
Grant Amount £199,995
Start Date
End Date
Grant Code (GN number) GN2908