Researchers conducting study to determine whether breast milk can protect babies from COVID-19

Initial results are expected by summer

SAN ANTONIO – Dr. Roberto Garofalo, with the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch, will lead a group of researchers for the next three years to determine what protections, if any, breast milk has for babies against COVID-19.

“The reason was to try to fill a gap because there is virtually nothing known about this response that may occur in the milk,” Garofalo said.

Kim Updegrove, executive director of Mother’s Milk Bank in Austin, said the unknowns about COVID-19 had caused many fears in the initial three months of the pandemic. The milk bank takes human milk donations and pasteurizes them to provide them to NICU babies in hospitals across the area.

That initial fear kicked off a study at the University of California San Diego to determine if breast milk was clear from the virus to give to babies. The results eased the fear, Updegrove said.

“The virus sheds RNA in the breast milk, and that doesn’t cause the virus, but it means that there is a SARS-COV-2 presence in breast milk. There is no evidence that that presence results in transmission to newborns,” Updegrove explained. “What is clear is that mothers who experience COVID-19 build antibodies from their natural immune system to the SARS-COV-2 virus. Those antibodies very commonly are found in their own milk, and they have antibodies to a number of different things that they’re exposed to in their milk.”

The University of Texas Medical Branch study’s research will determine whether the milk creates properties that prevent spreading the virus to babies.

Garofalo says the $300,000 grant from the Gerber Foundation will look at three main aspects:

  • the milk of mothers who tested positive for the virus and what biological response their milk provides for their babies;
  • the milk of mothers who have not been exposed and whether their milk still provides protective properties;
  • if cow’s milk in formula offers any protections.

“There is a lot of data showing that perhaps in the first months of life, kids seem to be [less severely affected],” Garofalo said.

University of Texas Medical Branch researchers are also conducting a separate study to determine how COVID-19 vaccines impact mothers and breast milk.

Garofalo says 50 samples are being collected, and researchers expect initial results to be available by summer.

Updegrove said the pandemic has had a positive side effect on the milk bank’s donations. The majority of donors are working moms who are now working from home. Their milk donations have increased by 20%.

The process of collecting that milk is also safer. Mothers who need to have lab work done are given appointments first thing in the morning, and volunteers do porch pickups to avoid contact.

Garofalo said he hopes the results will promote support for mothers to breastfeed their babies if they can.

“The fact that we may find in milk something that would block the virus may even make a stronger argument about the importance to breastfeed, even in those women that may be COVID-19-positive around the time they deliver and they may be afraid to infect their babies,” he said.

To find out how to donate to the milk bank, click here.


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