News that an hours-old baby in Wuhan has become the youngest person diagnosed with the new strain of coronavirus has got people speculating whether this means the infection can be passed on by transmission in the womb. Experts, however, are warning it is too early to tell.
The report came from Chinese State Media who announced Wednesday that a baby born at Wuhan Children’s Hospital on February 2 had tested positive for the infection at just 30 hours old. The mother had tested positive for the virus while pregnant, but it’s not clear if the baby was infected in the womb or at birth.
“The mother of the newborn was a confirmed patient of the coronavirus. At present, the infant’s vital signs are stable,” the report said.
The baby reportedly experienced no fever or coughing but has had shortness of breath, and X-rays showed signs of infection with some liver function abnormalities.
"This reminds us to pay attention to mother-to-child being a possible route of coronavirus transmission," Zeng Lingkong, chief physician of Wuhan Children Hospital's neonatal medicine department, told AFP. Whether mother-to-unborn baby transmission is possible or not, Dr Zeng warned pregnant women to stay away from infected patients.
The report also disclosed details of a second case relating to a baby born healthy on January 13, who started showing symptoms of the virus on January 29. The baby’s nanny was diagnosed with the virus after the baby was born, and the mother a few days later, before the baby started showing symptoms.
It's unclear who passed the virus onto whom, but as the virus is particularly dangerous for those with weakened immune systems, newborn babies are vulnerable. However, Xinhua reported a woman who had tested positive for the virus gave birth to a healthy baby in China's Heilongjiang Province on February 3. The baby tested negative for the infection on February 6.
2019-nCoV, as the virus has been dubbed, is in the same coronavirus family as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), both of which are aiding doctors in understanding how the new strain spreads and affects people.
There are reports that 2019-nCov, like SARS and MERS, doesn't appear to affect children as much as adults. Children appear to either experience milder infections or show no symptoms. The MERS epidemics in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and South Korea in 2015 killed over 800 people but most infected children didn't develop symptoms. No children died in the SARS epidemic in China in 2002-2003.
Previous reports of pregnant women diagnosed with MERS or SARS have suggested a risk to pregnancy, but this is related to miscarriage and pre-term birth likely due to the severity of the illness suffered by the mother rather than transmission in the womb, according to Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia. There are no reports of pregnant women with SARS passing it onto the child.
“As far as I am aware there is currently no evidence that the novel coronavirus can be transmitted in the womb,” Professor Hunter said.
“When a baby is born vaginally it is exposed to the mother’s gut microbiome, therefore if a baby does get infected with coronavirus a few days after birth we currently cannot tell if the baby was infected in the womb or during birth.”
So far, the coronavirus has infected over 28,000 people and killed 565 across 28 countries, though mainly in mainland China. The outbreak has not yet been declared a pandemic.