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Coronavirus in newborn raises transmission questions

10 February 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1034

A newborn baby has been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, prompting questions about whether it can be passed from mother to child in the womb. 

The mother of the baby was diagnosed with the virus prior to giving birth, raising the possibility of 'vertical transmission': when a virus passes from a mother to her baby either via the placenta, during the birth or through breast milk.  

'We should be concerned about the possible new transmission route of the coronavirus' Zeng Lingkong, director of the neonatal department at Wuhan Children's Hospital told the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

Although doctors treating novel coronavirus patients are now alert to the possibility, the way the baby contracted the virus is uncertain.

'So far, there is only one case, but the test was done 36 hours after the birth, therefore we cannot say with certainty [it was] mother-baby transmission,' said Professor Qiao Jie, an obstetrician from Peking University Third Hospital in Beijing. 'The baby had had contact with other people'. 

Professor Qiao further explained that the baby's placenta and umbilical cord blood tested negative for the virus, suggesting that transmission did not take place before birth. Throat swabs and umbilical cord blood samples from ten other babies born by caesarean section to infected mothers all tested negative. 

Dr Qiao's team has also analysed breast milk samples from infected mothers and has found no sign of the virus.

'As far as I am aware there is currently no evidence that the novel coronavirus can be transmitted in the womb. When a baby is born vaginally it is exposed to the mother's gut microbiome, therefore if a baby does get infected with coronavirus a few days after birth we currently cannot tell if the baby was infected in the womb or during birth' said Paul Hunter, Professor of Medicine at the University of East Anglia, who was not involved in treating the mother and baby.

Coronavirus: mother-baby transmission unproven despite case of newborn
The Guardian |  5 February 2020
Coronavirus: mother-baby transmission yet to be proven, obstetrician says
South China Morning Post |  6 February 2020
Fears coronavirus could be contracted in the womb after day-old baby in Wuhan tests positive
Newsweek |  5 February 2020
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