Breastfeeding the baby. Photo: Wikimedia/Anton Nossik

An investigation into how antibodies in breastmilk can  protect babies and young children from  COVID-19  will be the  focus of a new project  by  The University of Western Australia,  funded by the State Government to tackle health challenges associated with the virus.   

The findings  will inform  breastfeeding  recommendations for best infant care during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The research team, from UWA’s School of Molecular Sciences, was awarded $223,000  through  the  Future Health Research and Innovation (FHRI) Fund Focus Grant  Program to investigate  the activity of antibodies in  protecting children from COVID-19 in the  world’s  largest,  long-term  human milk  study.

Lead  researcher, Professor  Valérie Verhasselt, Larssen-Rosenquist Chair in Human  Lactology  at UWA, said  with human milk recommended as the sole source of infant nutrition, it  was  important  to understand  whether  it could  protect  infants from  COVID-19 and how.

“While we are currently 99.99 per cent sure we can say that a child cannot get COVID-19 through breast milk, there is still much research to be done to reveal the capability of human milk to prevent COVID-19 infections,” Professor Verhasselt said.

The team will analyse 500 milk samples from 25 COVID-19 infected and 25 non-infected mothers collected at 10 time points from delivery.

Using this unique  resource, they aim to  further establish the protective properties of human milk against the COVID-19 infection.

Importantly, they will address current gaps in knowledge, including how maternal COVID-19 infection influences the protective effect of breastmilk and how important maternal antibodies are to protect the child from infection.

Professor Verhasselt said that filling these gaps of knowledge was essential to providing the scientific evidence needed for appropriate breastfeeding guidance during  the  COVID-19 pandemic.

She said  the  study would  also  reveal the importance of prolonged breastfeeding to prevent infection and disease in children as well as to prevent community transmission by asymptomatic children.

“We expect this knowledge will be critical to inform vaccination strategies, including the need to vaccinate lactating mothers for the best approach to prevent COVID-19 in children,” Professor Verhasselt said.

“It may also lead to the development of new therapeutics, such as milk-derived antibodies, to prevent severe disease in at-risk populations.”

The research was established in collaboration with Dr Juan M Rodriguez, Complutense University of Madrid, who provided access to the long-term milk cohort and Dr Allison Imrie, UWA, to address the virus neutralising properties of human milk antibodies.