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Breast Milk & COVID-19

Joint Research Project to Study Evidence of Transmission and Antibodies in Breast Milk of COVID-19 Positive Mothers

A collaborative project between researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center (URMC), New York University (NYU) and University of Idaho will examine whether mothers can transmit COVID-19 through breast milk, and whether the breast milk itself has immunological properties against the disease.

URMC was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for roughly $600,000 the next 2 years for this study that could result in critical guidance for an issue that currently lacks high quality evidence. The research group is led by Dr. Kirsi Jarvinen-Seppo in the Department of Pediatrics.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, major health organizations have often provided contradictory advice on whether and/or when to separate COVID-19 positive mothers and their newborns, according to co-investigator Bridget Young, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics at URMC. Other co-investigators include Casey Rosen-Carole. M.D., medical director of lactation services and programs at URMC, Antti Seppo, Ph.D., research associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Martin Zand, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine and medical humanities in the Division of Nephrology, David Topham, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and Mark Sangster, Ph.D., Research Professor also in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology.

“We only want to sequester a mother from her baby if it’s medically necessary,” said Young, “However, the issue is very confusing for practitioners who don’t have sufficient evidence, and that’s what drove the urgency. We’re looking to drive the evidence so we can provide the best care.”

Thus far, there have been very few studies that have examined breast milk in COVID-19 mothers, according to Young. Combined case reports of 68 breast milk samples found evidence of the virus in only 9; and whether or not detected virus is infectious remains unknown.

“Lots of viruses aren’t present in breast milk,” said Young, “If a mom has influenza, we don’t tell her to stop breast feeding her babies. A lot of factors in breast milk help keep babies healthy. Plus, there’s a lot of data showing that moms vaccinated against influenza provide specific influenza antibodies that help their infants remain healthy.”

Young’s hypothesis is that similar to the flu, COVID-19 antibodies will be found in the mother’s breast milk. “We’re particularly interested in when antibodies may appear in breast milk, how long antibodies are present, and how much protection these antibodies provide the baby,” said Young.

“Breast milk is a tricky sample to work with” Young states, “And collecting the samples in a manner that ensures no contamination is critical.  Our team has a lot of experience conducting these types of breast milk studies, and supporting breastfeeding parents”.

The study will examine breast milk from 50 COVID-19 positive mothers to gauge both transmission risk and evidence of antibodies. In addition to examining breast milk, the study will also determine whether the COVID-19 virus is detected on the physical breast itself by taking swabs before and after washing.

“A newborn baby nurses an average 10-12 times a day, so it’s important to know whether physical contact with the breast carries risk,” said Young.

Currently, they have enrolled 20 women and are actively recruiting. If you are interested in participating please contact immediately: Rita Ferri, Rita_Ferri@URMC.Rochester.edu.