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Breastmilk and COVID Research: Can Breastmilk Help "Kill" the COVID-19 Virus?

Breastmilk and COVID Research: Can Breastmilk Help "Kill" the COVID-19 Virus?

According to WHO, breastfeeding is the cornerstone of infant and young child survival, nutrition, and development. It contains just the exact nutrients that babies need and it also offers antibodies that protect them from various infections. Can these “protective” properties of breastmilk help kill the COVID-19 virus? Here’s what you need to know about breastmilk and COVID research.

Whey Protein in Breastmilk Can “Kill” COVID-19 Virus, A Recent Study Reveals

Contrary to what they expected, scientists Yigang Tong and his colleagues found out that it wasn’t the antibodies in the breastmilk that helped suppress the SARS-CoV2 virus – it was the whey protein.

The Methodology

In their breastmilk and COVID research, the investigators used various types of cells: From animal kidney cells to human lung and gut cells.

Afterward:

  • They mixed the cells in human breastmilk, washed the milk off, and then exposed the cells to the COVID-19 virus. Then, they also exposed the sample cells to its relative, pangolin coronavirus.
  • Results showed that the COVID-19 virus as well as the pangolin coronavirus didn’t bind to the cell. They also noted that the breastmilk helped prevent viral entry.

The researchers likewise checked the effect of human breastmilk to the already-infected cells. They observed that the milk effectively inhibited the “post-entry viral replication”. This means that because of the breastmilk, the virus inside the cell didn’t multiply any further.

It Was the Whey Protein

Initially, the scientists suspected that the well-known antibody proteins in the milk (such as the Lactoferrin and IgA) inhibited the viral binding, entry, and replication.

However, they discovered that the antibodies showed “limited anti-coronavirus” properties. This only indicates that another component in the breastmilk was responsible in “killing” the viruses.

That was when they focused on whey protein.

In their breastmilk and COVID research, Tong and his team noticed that the whey protein in cow and goat milk exhibited the same ability to “suppress” the viruses by up to 70%. However, the whey in human breastmilk appeared to be more effective. This is because it inhibited the viral activities by close to 100%.

Donated Breastmilk May Not be as Effective

Because mothers sometimes give donated breastmilk to their baby, due to low milk supply and other constraints, the investigators also studied if it will just be as effective in suppressing the COVID-19 virus.

They found out that if they’ll use donated breastmilk, the effectiveness will drop to under 20%.

The reason for this huge drop was because of the process of pasteurization, which heats the milk at 90 degrees for 10 minutes. They explained that donated breastmilk needs to undergo pasteurization to ensure that it’s not contaminated.

The problem is that pasteurization inactivates the whey protein in the milk.

breastmilk and covid research

Ongoing Research about Breastmilk and COVID-19: What we know so far

Recently the Department of Health (DOH) urged people who have survived COVID-19 to donate their blood? They explain that we can potentially use the antibodies in the blood plasma of survivors to find a cure for the coronavirus disease.

Well, some scientists believe that the same could be true for human breastmilk.

Rebecca Powell, a human milk immunologist, works on collecting breastmilk from mothers, especially those who survived COVID-19. According to her, the antibodies in the milk hold high potential. This is because they are “tougher” than the antibodies in the blood.

She highlights that the antibodies in the breastmilk are durable because they were intended to survive an infant’s digestive and respiratory tracts to help fight off infections.

As of now, 80% of the survivors she invited to participate in her breastmilk and COVID research had the antibodies for the coronavirus in their breastmilk. However, Powell and her team still haven’t tested the antibodies for their effectiveness.

Breastfeeding as per WHO’s Research

While studies are still underway as to whether or not the human breastmilk can help cure COVID-19, the major concern for many mothers is this: Should they suspect or confirm COVID-19 infection, will it still be alright to breastfeed their baby?

In a study conducted by the World Health Organization, they found out that, yes, it’s safe to breastfeed your baby even when you test positive for the SARS-CoV2 virus.

In their breastmilk and COVID research, they did the following:

  • They employed the participation of 46 mother-infant dyads. All mothers were COVID-19-positive while only 13 infants were infected by the coronavirus.
  • The researchers then collected breastmilk samples from all mother participants.
  • 43 breastmilk samples tested negative for the COVID-19 virus. They detected the coronavirus in the remaining 3 samples.
  • Of the 3 babies whose mothers’ breastmilk tested positive, only one was infected by the coronavirus.
  • The researchers cannot rule out the possibility that this particular baby got the infection from other routes (e.g. droplet transmission).

What Does the WHO recommend?

Currently, the WHO recommends for the mother to initiate or continue breastfeeding even if she suspects that she’s COVID-positive. If she turns out to be infected, she should still breastfeed her baby.

Moreover, they also recommend for the mother and child to stay together and practice skin-to-skin contact.

Guidelines in Breastfeeding if You Tested Positive

If you choose direct breastfeeding, don’t forget to wash your hands with soap and water before holding your infant. While nursing, wear a face mask or cloth face cover.

On the other hand, if you choose to pump breastmilk, wear a mask, and wash your hands before cleaning all the equipment and bottles thoroughly.

Express milk as often as your baby feeds and clean the pump after each use.

Learn more about COVID-19 here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

The effect of whey protein on viral infection and replication of SARS-CoV-2 and pangolin coronavirus in vitro
https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2020.08.17.254979v1
Accessed September 29, 2020

Mother’s milk could help fight coronavirus, study finds
https://news.abs-cbn.com/overseas/09/28/20/mothers-milk-could-help-fight-coronavirus-study-finds?fbclid=IwAR0Xm-pYcEFnsRzW-N8HS1ZO_mzkuGO8v7COlUShZhi1DsceTMV2XgueD9w
Accessed September 29, 2020

Breastfeeding and COVID-19
https://www.who.int/news-room/commentaries/detail/breastfeeding-and-covid-19
Accessed September 29, 2020

Breastfeeding During the COVID-19 Pandemic
https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/COVID-19/Pages/Breastfeeding-During-COVID-19.aspx
Accessed September 29, 2020

A scientist is collecting breast milk from mothers for use as a possible coronavirus treatment
https://www.mountsinai.org/about/newsroom/2020/a-scientist-is-collecting-breast-milk-from-mothers-for-use-as-a-possible-coronavirus-treatment-itn
Accessed September 29, 2020

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Written by Lorraine Bunag, R.N. Updated Sep 30, 2020
Fact Checked by Hello Doctor Medical Panel
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