Study Links COVID-19 Infections in Pregnant Women to Increased Respiratory Distress in Babies


Babies born to mothers who contracted COVID-19 while pregnant have an increased risk of respiratory distress, according to the findings of a study published on Jan. 24.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications, was conducted by researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the Cleveland Clinic.

Researchers noted that previous studies have suggested that prenatal exposure to COVID-19 may activate an “inflammatory cascade” in the airways of newborns.

In their study, researchers analyzed 221 women in Los Angeles, California, who became infected with the virus during their pregnancies between April 2020 and August 2022. Researchers then observed the newborn babies.

Approximately 151 (68 percent) of the women did not receive COVID-19 vaccinations before infection, researchers said.

None of the babies tested positive for COVID-19 infection at birth, but roughly 17 percent displayed “unusually high rates” of respiratory distress within six months of birth, which is a “very high frequency,” according to researchers.

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That compared to 5 to 6 percent for babies who were not exposed to COVID-19, marking a threefold increase in risk, despite the babies themselves not being infected with the virus.

Researchers also noted that respiratory distress in infants was more common if a pregnant mother had severe COVID-19 disease.

‘Statistically Significant’ Findings

Approximately 21 percent of babies with respiratory distress were born to mothers with severe or critical COVID-19, while just 6 percent of babies without respiratory distress were born to women with severe disease, a finding that researchers said was also “statistically significant.”

Additionally, they noted that respiratory distress in babies was more common—up to three times greater—if the mother was not vaccinated with at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Of the 34 infants with respiratory distress, five (16 percent) were born to mothers vaccinated prior to infection, compared to 63 (41 percent) without the breathing disorder, according to researchers.

No deaths were reported among the newborns.

Individuals with respiratory distress display signs and symptoms of breathing problems such as struggling to breathe or an increased breathing rate, changes to skin color, wheezing, and sweating, according to Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Children who were born prematurely are generally at greater risk of respiratory problems.

Study Limitations

Researchers in the latest study noted that inflammation in the pregnant mother may activate inflammation cells in their babies.

“Not only do our results show higher rates of RD [respiratory distress] in SEU [SARS-CoV-2 exposed uninfected] infants when compared to the general population but we observed more cases of RD at later gestational ages than anticipated, when neonates should presumably have more mature lung anatomy,” the researchers wrote.

The study was funded by the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative, the UCLA W.M. Keck Foundation COVID-19 Research Award Program, and the National Institutes of Health.

Researchers noted some limitations, however, including that the majority of the women who took part in the study were enrolled from a “large tertiary and quaternary medical center, which typically receives the sickest patients,” and several mothers and their babies were transferred from small community hospitals around the county owing to illness severity, meaning the findings “may be skewed toward more severe COVID illness than what might be found in the general population.”

Researchers also did not have data on the effect of COVID-19 infection prior to vaccination or of vaccination after infection, which they said may impact maternal disease severity and its effect on fetal development.

They further noted the results are based on a small sample and should be interpreted “with caution.”


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