A Mother Passed COVID-19 to Her Fetus in Utero, Showing It's Possible

One of the most pressing avenues of coronavirus research for parents and people of reproductive age obviously deals with what COVID-19 means for pregnant people (their health and the health of their fetuses). While earlier this summer a study found that the coronavirus potentially damages placentas, doctors in France reported a case of a fetus contracting the virus in utero, according to a paper published in Nature Communications.

In the paper, titled “Transplacental transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection,” researchers note that in late March a 23-year-old pregnant woman was admitted to the hospital at 35 weeks with a fever and severe cough and phlegm. A few days after birth, the newborn developed symptoms of irritability, muscle spasms and neurological symptoms (which post-MRI showed signs of gliosis — an injury that can lead to brain scarring)

“Unfortunately there is no doubt about the transmission in this case,” Daniele De Luca, medical director of pediatrics and neonatal critical care at the Antoine Béclère hospital told The Guardian on Tuesday. “Clinicians must be aware that this may happen. It’s not common, that’s for sure, but it may happen and it must be considered in the clinical workout.”

Though the baby tested positive for the virus shortly after birth, he reportedly recovered and was discharged from the hospital after 18 days. However, researchers were able to test the baby’s blood and the placenta to confirm the COVID-19 infection and to clarify that the infant wasn’t suffering from other conditions.

“The reason this has not been demonstrated before is that you need a lot of samples. You need the maternal blood, the newborn blood, the cord blood, the placenta, the amniotic fluid, and it’s extremely difficult to get all these samples in a pandemic with emergencies all around,” De Luca added. “There have been some suspected cases, but they remain suspected because nobody had the opportunity to test all of this and check the pathology of the placenta.”

Through testing the placenta and mother’s blood, they found that the virus spread from mother through the placenta and then to the baby — and the authors noted that the placenta “showed signs of acute and chronic intervillous inflammation consistent with the severe systemic maternal inflammatory status triggered by SARS-CoV-2 infection.” With a presence of the virus higher in the placenta than in the amniotic fluid or the mother’s blood leads researchers to believe the virus could be able to replicate itself in the cells of the placenta. Another study published in eLife on Tuesday also looks into the behavior of the virus in the placenta and found that because there are “negligible” amounts of the necessary cell surface receptors and enzymes needed for the virus to replicate in the cells it might explain why this hasn’t occurred in a majority of pregnancies where the mother tests positive with COVID-19.

But what does this all mean for people who are pregnant right now?

Ultimately, as De Luca told the Guardian, it’s not great news to hear that the virus is in some cases reaching pregnant people’s placentas and leading to illness in the babies. However, the recovery of the baby and the new information for medical professionals can only help ensure better results for future pregnancies that have these conditions. 

“You can see the glass as half empty or half full. The bad news is that in this case history, the virus is attacking the baby, reaching the baby and causing symptoms. The good news is that at the end of the day, the baby very much recovered. The baby is clinically fine,” he said. “…Pregnant women should be reassured. Pregnancy is very controlled and if you have something like this, it can be controlled. In most cases there will be no damage to the baby. There are many things we can do, but we can’t close our eyes and say this is never going to happen.”

For those who are pregnant or around pregnant people, it’s all the more important to take the precautions you can to limit exposure to conditions where you could be infected or infect someone with the virus. 

Looking to prep your home in case someone you care about gets sick? Here’s our at-home coronavirus first aid kit: 

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