COVID-19 vaccine during pregnancy protects newborns

July 08, 2021 5:00 AM

While babies can’t receive the COVID vaccine themselves, they may still benefit from vaccine antibodies that pass through the placenta or breastmilk.

women holding newborn in rocking chair
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Some newborns may arrive in the world already protected from the deadly virus that caused the pandemic.

Babies may not yet be eligible for the COVID vaccine, but if their mother gets vaccinated, they can glean immunity either in the womb or through breastmilk, recent studies suggest.

“We now have evidence that antibodies created by the vaccine can travel through the placenta to the baby before birth and also during lactation,” said Cosmas Van De Ven, M.D., a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at University of Michigan Health Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital.

“This is reassuring news for pregnant people who want to get vaccinated but may still be hesitant. The research shows no evidence of any harm – only benefits – for newborns.”

The largest multi-center study so far to look at the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine in pregnant individuals, led by Stanford University, involved 131 women. Researchers found vaccine-generated antibodies in all umbilical cord blood and breast milk samples taken from the study, but it’s unclear how long this protection lasts.

The ability to transfer vaccine antibodies to the fetus has previously been documented for other illnesses like the whooping cough and flu, which can be dangerous to infants, Van De Ven said. Vaccines against these diseases have long been recommended during pregnancy to protect newborns.

“Studies continue to reinforce the importance of vaccines during pregnancy and their power to protect two lives at once by preventing severe illness in both moms and babies,” Van De Ven said.

COVID risks severe during pregnancy

Individuals who are pregnant are more likely to become severely ill with COVID-19, require hospitalization, intensive care or ventilation — and may be at increased risk for adverse pregnancy outcomes, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

"Studies continue to reinforce the importance of vaccines during pregnancy and their power to protect two lives at once by preventing severe illness in both moms and babies."
Cosmas Van De Ven, M.D.

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While the COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials didn’t initially include pregnant or nursing people, the recent research demonstrates the vaccine’s efficacy in producing antibodies against COVID in this population, Van De Ven said.

“It’s extremely encouraging to see that pregnant women show robust immune response to coronavirus vaccines,” he said.

Because of the known risks of COVID during pregnancy and the biology of mRNA vaccines – which are made with a string of the genetic material and not the virus itself – scientists, doctors, and professional organizations in the United States support pregnant women receiving the vaccine.

The safety profile of the vaccine from the randomized control trials in non-pregnant individuals, Van De Ven noted, also suggested no significant safety concerns.

“We support pregnant women receiving the vaccine because the health risks of COVID-19 in pregnancy can be severe and life-threatening,” he said.

“At this time, the benefits of the vaccine appear to far outweigh any theoretical risks related to side effects.”

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