Can COVID‑19 and maternal antibodies to SARS-CoV-2 be transmitted through human milk? Implications for breastfeeding and human milk banking

O'Connor, Deborah L | $182,538

Ontario Sinai Health System 2020 CIHR Operating Grant

Protecting the health of newborns is of utmost importance, particularly true at the time of a pandemic such as COVID-19. Human milk, the optimal infant nutrition, modulates the developing human virome and provides protection against infectious diseases especially those of the respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts. There is emerging evidence that SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, may be found in human milk which has resulted in conflicting advice from professional groups recommending caution for breastfeeding while a mother is COVID‑19 positive. Even less is known about SARS-CoV-2 specific antibodies that may be present in human milk, potentially offering immunoprotection to infants. For vulnerable infants, human donor milk provides an important bridge to mother’s milk during hospitalization that helps to protect against neonatal morbidities. This donor milk is provided globally by more than 450 milk banks. Past global epidemics, such as HIV/AIDS, have had devastating effects on breastfeeding and milk banking as a result of social, policy and public health responses to perceived risks. There is a critical, time-sensitive need to develop evidence-based guidance on breastfeeding and human milk banking during the COVID‑19 pandemic. This project aims to quickly and efficiently determine the SARS-CoV-2 transmissibility in human milk and measure the associated antibodies along with the impact of thermal pasteurization on SARS-CoV-2 infectivity. Our newly assembled team of experts in breastfeeding, human milk banking, infectious disease and molecular virology will immediately redirect parts of their established research programs including established infrastructure and personnel to accelerate the availability of critical time-sensitive evidence to guide public health recommendations about breastfeeding, handling of raw breastmilk by mothers and front-line workers in hospitals and in donor human milk banks.

With funding from the Government of Canada

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