Newborn babies test positive for coronavirus

Chinese researchers found three infants tested positive for Covid-19 at Wuhan Children's Hospital, but all recovered

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Pregnant women may be able to pass coronavirus to their unborn babies while they are still in the womb, scientists fear, after three newborns were found to have been infected with Covid-19.

Chinese researchers analysed 33 babies born to mothers with Covid-19 at Wuhan Children's Hospital in January and February and found three infants had tested positive for the virus.

The youngsters, who were all born by caesarean section, have since recovered but experienced several days of breathing difficulties and fever after birth.

Scientists said it was likely the newborns had picked up the virus from their mothers rather than externally, but could not rule out that it had been passed in the womb. They called for pregnant women to be screened for the virus and take extra care to self-isolate.

Previous studies of babies infected with coronavirus found no evidence of the virus in amniotic fluid, cord blood, and breast milk, and British scientists said that it may have been picked up after delivery.

The latest study published in Jama Paediatrics reported that the three newborns were clear of Covid-19 in a few days after treatment.

Scientists from a range of institutions, including the University in Shanghai, concluded: "Although two recent studies have shown that there were no clinical findings or investigations suggestive of Covid-19 in neonates born to affected mothers, and all samples, including amniotic fluid, cord blood, and breast milk, were negative, the vertical maternal-fetal transmission cannot be ruled out in the current cohort."

British researchers urged expectant mothers not to be alarmed by the findings as babies and young children were least at risk of contracting a fatal case of the virus, according to data from China.

Andrew Shennan, Professor of Obstetrics at King's College London, said: "Transmission from mother to baby of coronavirus has not previously been observed.

"Studies have shown that coronavirus has not passed to amniotic fluid, fetal cord blood, placentas or the genital tract of infected mothers.

"These three cases show the babies are at risk of infection, but given when they are positive (two days after delivery), this could still be after delivery. We need more evidence to prove transmission from mother to baby can occur in pregnancy."

Andrew Whitelaw, Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Medicine at the University of Bristol, added: "As all infants had amniotic fluid and umbilical cord blood tested for Covid-19 with negative results, this is evidence against the virus being transmitted from mother to fetus via the placenta.

"It seems more likely that the three infants were infected very soon after delivery, possibly from the mother's fingers.

"On the basis of this small but much-needed study, infants born to mothers with Covid-19 do not appear to be at serious increased risk, over and above the background risks of pregnancy and delivery.

"However, strict precautions need to be taken to minimise virus transmission to staff and other patients. Conclusions may have to change when larger numbers of infants are reported."