There is a lot we do not know about SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, including how it may interact with human milk. However, researchers at the University of Texas Medical Branch are trying to figure out if breast milk has any innate ability to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, or if an infected mother can pass antibodies to her breastfeeding child.

Dr. Roberto Garofalo, John Sealy Distinguished Chair in Pediatrics and Vice Chair for Research in the Department of Pediatrics at UTMB, said his new study, which is funded by a three-year grant from the Gerber Foundation, could provide some answers by asking pregnant women to provide samples of breast milk after they give birth.

“The well-known benefits of breastfeeding have been challenged by the dramatic worldwide spread of COVID-19,” Garofalo said. “The potential infection of pregnant women and transmission to the nursing infant, particularly in the perinatal period, pose significant risks to the important early mother-infant bonding. With this study we want to investigate how COVID-19 and breast milk interact.”

Colostrum and milk, the major products of lactation, contain a wealth of biologically active products derived from the immunologic and microbiological experiences in maternal circulation and mucosal surfaces. Along with being a nutritional source for the baby, breast milk can provide antibodies, proteins, fats, sugars and white blood cells that can help fight infection.

The benefits of breastfeeding to infants include reduced risks of asthma, type 1 diabetes, severe lower respiratory disease, gastrointestinal infections, among others, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

To see if those benefits extend to fighting off COVID-19, the new UTMB study will test the donated breast milk in a number of different ways. In one test, milk from women who have tested negative for SARS-CoV-2 will be tested to see if the milk contains any antiviral factors. In another set of experiments, milk from women who have a confirmed case of COVID-19 will be tested for the SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. The study will also test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in milk samples of COVID-19 positive mothers, as it remains unclear whether the virus can be shed into breast milk.

“Although the study is not aimed to address the outcome of infants based on the COVID-19 status of the mother, it will nonetheless, generate new critical information about the dynamic of mother-infant transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and the role of breast milk can play in immunologic protection,” Garofalo said.

Dr. George Saade, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, co-investigator in this study will coordinate the enrollment of women who will donate samples of milk for the analysis.