By Reon Janse van Rensburg
New research done by the University of Florida in the USA showed that breastmilk of vaccinated lactating mothers contains significant antibodies that could protect their children against the illness.
According to Joseph Larkin, a senior writer of the study and associate professor in the UF/IFAS division for Microbiology and Cell Science, findings show that the Covid-19 vaccination increases antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 (the virus responsible for Covid-19) considerably in breastmilk. This is an indication that mothers can transfer this immunity to their babies.
Josef Neu, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine (Paediatrics) stated that babies are born with an underdeveloped immune system that makes it difficult for them to fight infections on their own, and they are sometimes also too young to react satisfactorily to vaccines.
He further argues that during this time, breastmilk transfers a “passive immunity” to the babies.
Neu stated that breastmilk is seen as a “toolbox” packed with all kinds of different tools that can prepare a baby for life. He believes that the Covid-19-vaccine is an aid added to this “toolbox” with the potential to prevent Covid-19.
According to Neu, all the results of this study indicate that vaccines could help protect mothers and their babies, which is just another reason for lactating mothers to be vaccinated.
The study was conducted between December 2020 and March 2021, when the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were available to healthcare workers in the USA for the first time. Researchers recruited 21 lactating healthcare workers who had never had Covid-19 before. The research team extracted breastmilk and blood from the mothers on three separate occasions: before vaccination, after the first dose of the vaccine as well as after the second dose of the vaccine.
Lauren Stafford, a PhD student in Larkin’s laboratory, said that they detected a strong antibody response in both the blood and breastmilk after the second dose of the vaccine was administered. It increased almost a hundredfold in comparison with the levels before the vaccine was administered.
According to Vivian Valcare from the University of Florida (Paediatrics), these levels are higher than those seen after a natural Covid-19 infection. Valcare and Stafford share the primary authorship of the study’s findings.
Valcare stated that it was nothing new to vaccinate mothers to protect their babies.
“Expecting mothers are usually vaccinated against whooping cough and flu seeing as it can be a serious illness for babies. Babies can also contract Covid-19 and routine vaccination of mothers against the virus is something that we will see in the future.” – Vivian Valcare from the University of Florida (Paediatrics).
With this in mind, the research team are continuing their research to determine how breastmilk that contains Covid-19 antibodies through vaccination can protect babies that ingest the milk.
“We want to know whether these babies that ingest this ‘antibody’-breastmilk, develop their own protection against Covid-19.” Said Larkin. In addition, we also want to know more about the antibodies, for instance, how long does it remain in breastmilk and how effective is it in neutralising the virus.”
Neu said that his laboratory was also interested in an investigation into the possible therapeutic uses of breastmilk produced by vaccinated mothers.
Despite the unanswered questions, the researchers remain excited and encouraged by their initial results.
“We are still learning about breastmilk and all of its benefits, and this is what makes this research so captivating – not only to scientists but non-scientists alike,” said Stafford, currently studying towards a degree in Microbiology and Cell Science at the University of Florida’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
“We are also excited to see simultaneous studies across the whole world that also show antibodies in the breastmilk of lactating mothers,” said Neu. “This means that our study confirms a growing amount of proof.”
This study was published in the magazine Breastfeeding Medicine and was funded by the Children’s Miracle Network.