Science and Health

Research Suggests Pregnant Women May Pass COVID-19 To Their Babies

Some reports show COVID-19 can be transmitted from mother to baby.

Research Suggests Pregnant Women May Pass COVID-19 To Their Babies
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

"It really feels like it's me and baby against the world," Zoe Martinkus, a mother who is nine months pregnant, told Newsy. 

Martinkus, like many expecting mothers, wasn’t planning for a pandemic when she got pregnant. But she's facing an added burden: Her husband is an ICU nurse.

"You feel, offhand, like you've been robbed of all the joys of that pregnancy should bring, right? People coming over, touching your belly and feeling the baby move," she said.

"What worries you the most?" Newsy's Lindsey Theis asked Martinkus via Zoom. 

"Getting it. You hear these horror stories around the nation about how many people have died from it," she said.

Pandemic anxiety is running high for many pregnant women, especially as some reports show COVID-19 can be transmitted from mother to baby. 

"Right now, there seems to be a few case reports suggesting that it can happen, but it certainly doesn't happen all the time," Dr. Alberst Hsu, reproductive endocrinologist and assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at University Of Missouri School Of Medicine, told Newsy. 

Hsu recently studied one of the first instances of a mother who had COVID-19 in her placenta after suffering just a mild case of COVID-19.

"There have been other reports of the COVID-19 virus inside placentas, but all the cases that we've seen, my coauthors and I have seen in the literature have all been from patients with moderate or severe COVID-19 disease, moderate being defined as requiring oxygen and severe being defined as requiring ICU or critical care," he said.

Many viruses can cross the placenta and infect a fetus in the womb, and there's growing evidence that the coronavirus sometimes can, too.

Here’s what some of the latest studies have found: — Researchers in Italy studied 31 women with COVID-19 who delivered babies in March and April. They found signs of the virus in several samples of umbilical cord blood, the placenta and breast milk. In one case, there was evidence a newborn may have had the virus at birth because signs of it were found in umbilical cord blood and in the placenta.  — In France, a case study of a severely ill 23-year-old pregnant woman found evidence the coronavirus had been transmitted from the placenta to her baby.  — But in the U.S., researchers at the National Institutes of Health found placental membranes lack messenger molecules to make the receptors and specific enzymes the coronavirus uses to enter and infect cells. 

So far, most research has been on women in late stages of pregnancy. 

"COVID-19, only came to the United States in February or March. Women who first got pregnant in February or March, they're only in their second trimester. We're only starting to get anatomy scans, ultrasounds showing whether or not there might be birth defects. So a lot of information, it’s just not out there yet. And it's not because people are trying or people don't care. It's just we don't have enough time. We don't have enough data yet," Hsu said.

As of July 16, the CDC reported 12,056 cases of COVID-19 among pregnant women and 35 deaths. Right now, CDC guidance for pregnant women and newborns includes testing and monitoring, but it’s not required. 

"This case has raised important public health and public policy questions of whether future pregnancy guidance should include stricter pandemic precautions, such as screening for a wider array of COVID-19 symptoms, increased antenatal surveillance and possibly routine COVID-19 testing on a regular basis throughout pregnancy. Now, to be clear, there are no guidelines requesting any of these items. But this case report raises, we think, important questions about whether those might be guidelines for the future," Hsu said.

Many questions remain, too: What is the chance of pregnancy complications? Of birth defects? How do outcomes and risk differ in each trimester? 

In May, the NIH’s Institute Of Child Health And Human Development director told Newsy it had begun working on solving the “need more data” problem, following 1,500 pregnant COVID-19 patients and their newborns until they leave the hospital. Those results won’t be out until early 2021, and for women like Zoe Martinkus, those answers won’t come in time. 

"That makes me feel very anxious," Martinkus said.

Doctors like OB-GYN Sharise Richardson, an expectant mother herself, advises taking the COVID-19 unknowns and stress in stride. 

"First and foremost, I tell my moms to take a deep breath. You're in good hands. ...  For me, it’s just taking it day by day. I think that all we have is the day," she said.