Pregnant women urged to get jab as study reveals how babies could get Covid

·3-min read
More pregnant women are being urged to get a coronavirus jab as figures show around 80,000 in England have had both doses (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)
More pregnant women are being urged to get a coronavirus jab as figures show around 80,000 in England have had both doses (Andrew Matthews/PA) (PA Archive)

Pregnant women have been urged to get vaccinated after London researchers discovered how babies in the womb could contract Covid.

More than 85,000 pregnant women in England have received at least one dose, and 80,000 two doses.

But many pregnant women, or those trying for a baby, have shunned the jab and unvaccinated pregnant women last month accounted for almost a fifth of the most critically ill covid patients.

The study, from UCL with Great Ormond Street Hospital and the NIHR Great Ormond Street Biomedical Research Centre, revealed how some newborns are thought to have caught Covid.

Evidence of the virus comes from the discovery that a small number of new babies were found to have Covid antibodies.

The research says that the infection could have resulted from the baby’s gut being exposed to the virus, probably when swallowing amniotic fluid, which the foetus does naturally for nutrients.

But the risk of infection was found to be “uncommon”.

The gut, or intestine, was found to be more susceptible to infection. The kidney was the other possible route, but this is “anatomically protected” from infection, so is less likely.

The researchers wanted to discover if and how the virus could be passed from an infected mother to the unborn foetus – so-called “vertical transmission”.

They carried out tests on donated organs.

In general, the placenta acts as a “highly effective and protective shield” against infection.

The authors said the biggest risk to the foetus during pregnancy was if the mother became seriously ill with Covid.

That could result in the virus being present in high concentration in the amniotic fluid and could damage the placenta, which could lead to pre-term birth.

Co-author Professor Anna David said: “Vaccination against Covid-19 is known to be safe in pregnancy and reduces the chance of Sars-CoV2 infection to very low levels.

“Our findings support current healthcare policy that vaccination in pregnancy is the best way for mothers to protect their unborn baby from Covid-19 infection.”

Professor Paolo de Coppi, paediatric surgeon at Great Ormond Street hospital and co-senior author of the study, said: “For the first time we are starting to understand how the placenta might ‘protect’ the unborn child from covid in the mother and how children can build up their own antibodies to coronavirus in the womb.

“Understanding the role of the placenta as the ‘filter’ to avoid the foetus getting infected helps to reveal how mother and baby’s bodies ‘interact’ during pregnancy.”

Senior author Dr Mattia Gerli said: “The foetus is known to begin swallowing the amniotic fluid in the second half of pregnancy. To cause infection, the [Covid] virus would need to be present in significant quantities in the amniotic fluid around the foetus.

“However, many studies in maternity care have found that the amniotic fluid around the foetus does not usually contain the [Covid] virus, even if the mother is infected with Covid-19. Our findings therefore explain that clinical infection of the foetus during pregnancy is possible but uncommon and that is reassuring for parents-to-be.”

The study, funded by the Medical Research Council and UKRI COVID-19 rapid response initiative, provides the most definitive information to date regarding the susceptibility of the foetus to covid infection.

It has been published in published in BJOG – An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology.

Dr Victoria Male, lecturer in reproductive immunology, Imperial College London, who was not involved in the study, said: “Although this study highlights a potential route by which unborn babies could be infected by covid, expectant parents should feel reassured that in utero covid infection is uncommon.

“However, we do know that covid in pregnancy is associated with an increased risk of preterm birth and stillbirth, so we recommend that pregnant people are vaccinated to protect themselves and their babies. We have extensive data to confirm that covid vaccination is safe in pregnancy.”

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