Pregnant & Breastfeeding Women Who Get the COVID-19 Vaccine Are Protecting Their Infants, Research Suggests
Becky Cummings had multiple reasons to get vaccinated against COVID-19 while tending to her firstborn, Clark, who arrived in September 2020 at 27 weeks.
The 29-year-old intensive care unit nurse in Greensboro, North Carolina, had witnessed the devastation day in and day out as the virus took its toll on the young and old. But when she was offered the vaccine, she hesitated, skeptical of its rapid emergency approval.
Exclusion of pregnant and lactating mothers from clinical trials fueled her concerns. Ultimately, though, she concluded the benefits of vaccination outweighed the risks of contracting the potentially deadly virus.
"Long story short," Cummings says, in December "I got vaccinated to protect myself, my family, my patients, and the general public."
At the time, Cummings remained on the fence about breastfeeding, citing a lack of evidence to support its safety after vaccination, so she pumped and stashed breast milk in the freezer. Her son is adjusting to life as a preemie, requiring mother's milk to be thickened with formula, but she's becoming comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding as more research suggests it's safe.
"If I could pop him on the boob," she says, "I would do it in a heartbeat."
Now, a study recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found "robust secretion" of specific antibodies in the breast milk of mothers who received a COVID-19 vaccine, indicating a potentially protective effect against infection in their infants.
The presence of antibodies in the breast milk, detectable as early as two weeks after vaccination, lasted for six weeks after the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
"We believe antibody secretion into breast milk will persist for much longer than six weeks, but we first wanted to prove any secretion at all after vaccination," says Ilan Youngster, the study's corresponding author and head of pediatric infectious diseases at Shamir Medical Center in Zerifin, Israel.
That's why the research team performed a preliminary analysis at six weeks. "We are still collecting samples from participants and hope to soon be able to comment about the duration of secretion."
As with other respiratory illnesses, such as influenza and pertussis, secretion of antibodies in breast milk confers protection from infection in infants. The researchers expect a similar immune response from the COVID-19 vaccine and are expecting the findings to spur an increase in vaccine acceptance among pregnant and lactating women.
A COVID-19 outbreak struck three families the research team followed in the study, resulting in at least one non-breastfed sibling developing symptomatic infection; however, none of the breastfed babies became ill. "This is obviously not empirical proof," Youngster acknowledges, "but still a nice anecdote."
Leaps.org inquired whether infants who derive antibodies only through breast milk are likely to have a lower immunity than infants whose mothers were vaccinated while they were in utero. In other words, is maternal transmission of antibodies stronger during pregnancy than during breastfeeding, or about the same?
"This is a different kind of transmission," Youngster explains. "When a woman is infected or vaccinated during pregnancy, some antibodies will be transferred through the placenta to the baby's bloodstream and be present for several months." But in the nursing mother, that protection occurs through local action. "We always recommend breastfeeding whenever possible, and, in this case, it might have added benefits."
A study published online in March found COVID-19 vaccination provided pregnant and lactating women with robust immune responses comparable to those experienced by their nonpregnant counterparts. The study, appearing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, documented the presence of vaccine-generated antibodies in umbilical cord blood and breast milk after mothers had been vaccinated.
Natali Aziz, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Stanford University School of Medicine, notes that it's too early to draw firm conclusions about the reduction in COVID-19 infection rates among newborns of vaccinated mothers. Citing the two aforementioned research studies, she says it's biologically plausible that antibodies passed through the placenta and breast milk impart protective benefits. While thousands of pregnant and lactating women have been vaccinated against COVID-19, without incurring adverse outcomes, many are still wondering whether it's safe to breastfeed afterward.
It's important to bear in mind that pregnant women may develop more severe COVID-19 complications, which could lead to intubation or admittance to the intensive care unit. "We, in our practice, are supporting pregnant and breastfeeding patients to be vaccinated," says Aziz, who is also director of perinatal infectious diseases at Stanford Children's Health, which has been vaccinating new mothers and other hospitalized patients at discharge since late April.
Earlier in April, Huntington Hospital in Long Island, New York, began offering the COVID-19 vaccine to women after they gave birth. The hospital chose the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine for postpartum patients, so they wouldn't need to return for a second shot while acclimating to life with a newborn, says Mitchell Kramer, chairman of obstetrics and gynecology.
The hospital suspended the program when the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paused use of the J&J vaccine starting April 13, while investigating several reports of dangerous blood clots and low platelet counts among more than 7 million people in the United States who had received that vaccine.
In lifting the pause April 23, the agencies announced the vaccine's fact sheets will bear a warning of the heightened risk for a rare but serious blood clot disorder among women under age 50. As a result, Kramer says, "we will likely not be using the J&J vaccine for our postpartum population."
So, would it make sense to vaccinate infants when one for them eventually becomes available, not just their mothers? "In general, most of the time, infants do not have as good of an immune response to vaccines," says Jonathan Temte, associate dean for public health and community engagement at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison.
"Many of our vaccines are held until children are six months of age. For example, the influenza vaccine starts at age six months, the measles vaccine typically starts one year of age, as do rubella and mumps. Immune response is typically not very good for viral illnesses in young infants under the age of six months."
So far, the FDA has granted emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children as young as 16 years old. The agency is considering data from Pfizer to lower that age limit to 12. Studies are also underway in children under age 12. Meanwhile, data from Moderna on 12-to 17-year-olds and from Pfizer on 12- to 15-year-olds have not been made public. (Pfizer announced at the end of March that its vaccine is 100 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 in the latter age group, and FDA authorization for this population is expected soon.)
"There will be step-wise progression to younger children, with infants and toddlers being the last ones tested," says James Campbell, a pediatric infectious diseases physician and head of maternal and child clinical studies at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Vaccine Development.
"Once the data are analyzed for safety, tolerability, optimal dose and regimen, and immune responses," he adds, "they could be authorized and recommended and made available to American children." The data on younger children are not expected until the end of this year, with regulatory authorization possible in early 2022.
For now, Vonnie Cesar, a family nurse practitioner in Smyrna, Georgia, is aiming to persuade expectant and new mothers to get vaccinated. She has observed that patients in metro Atlanta seem more inclined than their rural counterparts.
To quell some of their skepticism and fears, Cesar, who also teaches nursing students, conceived a visual way to demonstrate the novel mechanism behind the COVID-19 vaccine technology. Holding a palm-size physical therapy ball outfitted with clear-colored push pins, she simulates the spiked protein of the coronavirus. Slime slathered at the gaps permeates areas around the spikes—a process similar to how our antibodies build immunity to the virus.
These conversations often lead hesitant patients to discuss vaccination with their husbands or partners. "The majority of people I'm speaking with," she says, "are coming to the conclusion that this is the right thing for me, this is the common good, and they want to make sure that they're here for their children."
Amber Freed felt she was the happiest mother on earth when she gave birth to twins in March 2017. But that euphoric feeling began to fade over the next few months, as she realized her son wasn't making the same developmental milestones as his sister. "I had a perfect benchmark because they were twins, and I saw that Maxwell was floppy—he didn't have muscle tone and couldn't hold his neck up," she recalls. At first doctors placated her with statements that boys sometimes develop slower than girls, but the difference was just too drastic. At 10 month old, Maxwell had never reached to grab a toy. In fact, he had never even used his hands.
Thinking that perhaps Maxwell couldn't see well, Freed took him to an ophthalmologist who was the first to confirm her worst fears. He didn't find Maxwell to have vision problems, but he thought there was something wrong with the boy's brain. He had seen similar cases before and they always turned out to be rare disorders, and always fatal. "Start preparing yourself for your child not to live," he had said.
Getting the diagnosis took months of painful, invasive procedures, as well as fighting with the health insurance to get the genetic testing approved. Finally, in June 2018, doctors at the Children's Hospital Colorado gave the Freeds their son's diagnosis—a genetic mutation so rare it didn't even have a name, just a bunch of letters jammed together into a word SLC6A1—same as the name of the mutated gene. The mutation, with only 40 cases known worldwide at the time, caused developmental disabilities, movement and speech disorders, and a debilitating form of epilepsy.
The doctors didn't know much about the disorder, but they said that Maxwell would also regress in his development when he turned three or four. They couldn't tell how long he would live. "Hopefully you would become an expert and educate us about it," they said, as they gave Freed a five-page paper on the SLC6A1 and told her to start calling scientists if she wanted to help her son in any way. When she Googled the name, nothing came up. She felt horrified. "Our disease was too rare to care."
Freed's husband, a 6'2'' college football player broke down in sobs and she realized that if anything could be done to help Maxwell, she'd have be the one to do it. "I understood that I had to fight like a mother," she says. "And a determined mother can do a lot of things."
The Freed family.
Courtesy Amber Freed
She quit her job as an equity analyst the day of the diagnosis and became a full-time SLC6A1 citizen scientist looking for researchers studying mutations of this gene. In the wee hours of the morning, she called scientists in Europe. As the day progressed, she called researchers on the East Coast, followed by the West in the afternoon. In the evening, she switched to Asia and Australia. She asked them the same question. "Can you help explain my gene and how do we fix it?"
Scientists need money to do research, so Freed launched Milestones for Maxwell fundraising campaign, and a SLC6A1 Connect patient advocacy nonprofit, dedicated to improving the lives of children and families battling this rare condition. And then it became clear that the mutation wasn't as rare as it seemed. As other parents began to discover her nonprofit, the number of known cases rose from 40 to 100, and later to 400, Freed says. "The disease is only rare until it messes with the wrong mother."
It took one mother to find another to start looking into what's happening inside Maxwell's brain. Freed came across Jeanne Paz, a Gladstone Institutes researcher who studies epilepsy with particular interest in absence or silent seizures—those that don't manifest by convulsions, but rather make patients absently stare into space—and that's one type of seizures Maxwell has. "It's like a brief period of silence in the brain during which the person doesn't pay attention to what's happening, and as soon as they come out of the seizure they are back to life," Paz explains. "It's like a pause button on consciousness." She was working to understand the underlying biology.
To understand how seizures begin, spread and stop, Paz uses optogenetics in mice. From words "genetic" and "optikós," which means visible in Greek, the optogenetics technique involves two steps. First, scientists introduce a light-sensitive gene into a specific brain cell type—for example into excitatory neurons that release glutamate, a neurotransmitter, which activates other cells in the brain. Then they implant a very thin optical fiber into the brain area where they forged these light-sensitive neurons. As they shine the light through the optical fiber, researchers can make excitatory neurons to release glutamate—or instead tell them to stop being active and "shut up". The ability to control what these neurons of interest do, quite literally sheds light onto where seizures start, how they propagate and what cells are involved in stopping them.
"Let's say a seizure started and we shine the light that reduces the activity of specific neurons," Paz explains. "If that stops the seizure, we know that activating those cells was necessary to maintain the seizure." Likewise, shutting down their activity will make the seizure stop.
Freed reached out to Paz in 2019 and the two women had an instant connection. They were both passionate about brain and seizures research, even if for different reasons. Freed asked Paz if she would study her son's seizures and Paz agreed.
To do that, Paz needed mice that carried the SLC6A1 mutation, so Freed found a company in China that created them to specs. The company replaced a mouse SLC6A1 gene with a human mutated one and shipped them over to Paz's lab. "We call them Maxwell mice," Paz says, "and we are now implanting electrodes into them to see which brain regions generate seizures." That would help them understand what goes wrong and what brain cells are malfunctioning in the SLC6A1 mice—and help scientists better understand what might cause seizures in children.
Bred to carry SLC6A1 mutation, these "Maxwell mice" will help better understand this debilitating genetic disease. (These mice are from Vanderbilt University, where researchers are also studying SLC6A1.)
Courtesy Amber Freed
This information—along with other research Amber is funding in other institutions—will inform the development of a novel genetic treatment, in which scientists would deploy a harmless virus to deliver a healthy, working copy of the SLC6A1 gene into the mice brains. They would likely deliver the therapeutic via a spinal tap infusion, and if it works and doesn't produce side effects in mice, the human trials will follow.
In the meantime, Freed is raising money to fund other research of various stop-gap measures. On April 22, 2021, she updated her Milestone for Maxwell page with a post that her nonprofit is funding yet another effort. It is a trial at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, in which doctors will use an already FDA-approved drug, which was recently repurposed for the SLC6A1 condition to treat epilepsy in these children. "It will buy us time," Freed says—while the gene therapy effort progresses.
Freed is determined to beat SLC6A1 before it beats down her family. She hopes to put an end to this disease—and similar genetic diseases—once and for all. Her goal is not only to have scientists create a remedy, but also to add the mutation to a newborn screening panel. That way, children born with this condition in the future would receive gene therapy before they even leave the hospital.
"I don't want there to be another Maxwell Freed," she says, "and that's why I am fighting like a mother." The gene therapy trial still might be a few years away, but the Weill Cornell one aims to launch very soon—possibly around Mother's Day. This is yet another milestone for Maxwell, another baby step forward—and the best gift a mother can get.
This virtual event will convene leading scientific and medical experts to discuss the most pressing questions around the COVID-19 vaccines for children and teens. A public Q&A will follow the expert discussion.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
12:30 p.m. - 1:45 p.m. EDT
Virtual on Zoom
You can submit a question for the speakers upon registering.
Dr. H. Dele Davies, M.D., MHCM
Senior Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Dean for Graduate Studies at the University of Nebraska Medical (UNMC). He is an internationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases and a leader in community health.
Dr. Emily Oster, Ph.D.
Professor of Economics at Brown University. She is a best-selling author and parenting guru who has pioneered a method of assessing school safety.
Dr. Tina Q. Tan, M.D.
Professor of Pediatrics at the Feinberg School of Medicine, Northwestern University. She has been involved in several vaccine survey studies that examine the awareness, acceptance, barriers and utilization of recommended preventative vaccines.
Dr. Inci Yildirim, M.D., Ph.D., M.Sc.
Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Infectious Disease); Medical Director, Transplant Infectious Diseases at Yale School of Medicine; Associate Professor of Global Health, Yale Institute for Global Health. She is an investigator for the multi-institutional COVID-19 Prevention Network's (CoVPN) Moderna mRNA-1273 clinical trial for children 6 months to 12 years of age.
About the Event Series
This event is the second of a four-part series co-hosted by Leaps.org, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and the Sabin–Aspen Vaccine Science & Policy Group, with generous support from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.