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SARS-CoV-2 crosses placenta and infects brains of two infants: ‘This is a first’



Researchers have found for the first time that COVID infection has crossed the placenta and caused brain damage in two newborns, according to a study published online today in Pediatrics .

One of the infants died at 13 months and the other remained in hospice care at time of manuscript submission.

Lead author Merline Benny, MD, with the division of neonatology, department of pediatrics at University of Miami, and colleagues briefed reporters today ahead of the release.

Dr. Duara is medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Holtz Children's Hospital, Miami Zelda Calvert

Dr. Shahnaz Duara

This is a first,” said senior author Shahnaz Duara, MD, medical director of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Holtz Children’s Hospital, Miami, explaining it is the first study to confirm cross-placental SARS-CoV-2 transmission leading to brain injury in a newborn.

Both infants negative for the virus at birth

The two infants were admitted in the early days of the pandemic in the Delta wave to the neonatal ICU at Holtz Children’s Hospital at University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Medical Center.

Both infants tested negative for the virus at birth, but had significantly elevated SARS-CoV-2 antibodies in their blood, indicating that either antibodies crossed the placenta, or the virus crossed and the immune response was the baby’s.

Dr. Benny explained that the researchers have seen, to this point, more than 700 mother/infant pairs in whom the mother tested positive for COVID in Jackson hospital.

Most who tested positive for COVID were asymptomatic and most of the mothers and infants left the hospital without complications.

“However, (these) two babies had a very unusual clinical picture,” Dr. Benny said.

Those infants were born to mothers who became COVID positive in the second trimester and delivered a few weeks later.

Seizures started on day 1 of life

The babies began to seize from the first day of life. They had profound low tone (hypotonia) in their clinical exam, Dr. Benny explained.

“We had absolutely no good explanation for the early seizures and the degree of brain injury we saw,” Dr. Duara said.

Dr. Benny said that as their bodies grew, they had very small head circumference. Unlike some babies born with the Zika virus, these babies were not microcephalic at birth. Brain imaging on the two babies indicated significant brain atrophy, and neurodevelopment exams showed significant delay.

Discussions began with the center’s multidisciplinary team including neurologists, pathologists, neuroradiologists, and obstetricians who cared for both the mothers and the babies.

The experts examined the placentas and found some characteristic COVID changes and presence of the COVID virus. This was accompanied by increased markers for inflammation and a severe reduction in a hormone critical for placental health and brain development.

Examining the infant’s autopsy findings further raised suspicions of maternal transmission, something that had not been documented before.

Coauthor Ali G. Saad, MD, pediatric and perinatal pathology director at Miami, said, “I have seen literally thousands of brains in autopsies over the last 14 years, and this was the most dramatic case of leukoencephalopathy or loss of white matter in a patient with no significant reason. That’s what triggered the investigation.”


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