Study: COVID-19 may cause fetal inflammation

Wayne State researchers found fetal inflammation in pregnant women who had COVID-19. But it’s too early to know what the long-term effects are.

an adult hand holds an infant's hand

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says pregnant women who get COVID-19 have a higher risk of severe illness.

Wayne State University researchers say the disease may also cause inflammatory immune responses in the fetus.

“We need to perform more research to find out whether this inflammation has consequences later in life.” —Nardhy Gomez-Lopez, Ph. D. studied the impact of COVID infections in utero

Dr. Nardhy Gomez-Lopez co-authored the study. She says her team evaluated women early in the pandemic before scientists knew much about the disease.

“We found that pregnant women infected with SARS-CoV-2 display an inflammatory response, even if they’re asymptomatic,” she says.

Dr. Nardhy Gomez-Lopez co-authored the study.

The study was small. Researchers evaluated 23 pregnant women. Twelve tested positive for the virus. Of those, eight showed no symptoms, one had mild symptoms, and three had severe infections. The team compared immune responses between mothers and their newborns by comparing maternal blood and umbilical cord blood.

Gomez-Lopez says the virus induces a fetal immune response, but it’s too soon to know how that might affect the newborns.

“We need to perform more research to find out whether this inflammation has consequences later in life,” she says.

The research team studied the issue before COVID-19 vaccines came out. Gomez-Lopez says the findings should not discourage pregnant women from getting their shots.

“There are studies that show pregnant women benefit from vaccination, so they should not be concerned,” she says.

Read more: Michigan’s top medical doctor addresses concerns about COVID-19 vaccines for kids ages 5-11 

Researchers also discovered that:

  • Pregnant women with COVID-19 had fewer T-cells, which help drive anti-viral responses;
  • They developed antibodies against the virus regardless of symptoms, and some of these antibodies were found in umbilical cord blood;
  • The infection affects a fetus’ immune system even if the virus does not appear in the placenta.

The peer-reviewed study appears in the journal Natural Communications.

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  • Pat Batcheller
    Pat Batcheller is a host and Senior News Editor for 101.9 WDET, presenting local news, traffic and weather updates during Morning Edition. He is an amateur musician.