Dutch scientists are doing tests to give OAPs breast milk from women who survived COVID-19 because they believe it contains antibodies that will protect them from the disease.
The research is being carried out by a team at Amsterdam UMC who believe the milk can be drunk by vulnerable groups including the elderly or young babies to keep them safe.
Researcher Britt van Keulen told local media: “It is perhaps a strange picture, elderly people who drink breast milk, but if it protects against a deadly virus, we should just step over that embarrassment.
“Why should we be laughing about it? Milk from the supermarket also comes from someone else, namely a cow walking through a pasture with mud on its udders. We have generally accepted that image. So why would milk from a clean mother’s breast be crazy?”
Van Keulen works is a doctor at the Dutch Mother’s Milk Bank run by the Amsterdam UMC and is one of those involved in the new study.
She said: “We already know that breast milk protects newborn children against respiratory infections. This is because there are antibodies in breast milk. By breastfeeding, the mother passes on her own antibodies to her child.”
The starting point for the team was a study about a pregnant woman infected with SARS during the 2003 outbreak who produced antibodies against that disease that protected her child.
She said: “This woman became seriously infected with the SARS virus and gave birth to a healthy baby at 38 weeks. Antibodies to that virus were found in her breast milk. If you know that the coronavirus is very similar to the SARS virus – they are from the same family – then I think that corona antibodies also end up in breast milk.”
The stumbling point of the moment is finding 30 women who have had a proven COVID-19 infection and who are breastfeeding.
She said: “My mailbox is flooded with mothers who had symptoms that strongly indicate they had the coronavirus, but we are really looking for women who have had a proven COVID-19 infection. Very few people in that group exist.”
The sticking point for the team wants to have the mothers is whether or not the antibodies will survive pasteurisation, in which the milk is heated up to destroy bacteria.
She said: “Heating breast milk is necessary because it kills pathogens. At the Breast Milk Bank, we always do this with breast milk before we give it to other children. Antibodies will undoubtedly be lost, but we think – based on previous studies – that enough will remain.”
As soon as they have the test group in place there will then start the final stage which is administering it to the study group where they need to decide which vulnerable group benefits from a shot of breast milk?
Van Keulen is the first to think of frail older people, who are hit hardest during this crisis. But also premature children or children with birth defects.
She said: “Those children are vulnerable to respiratory infections, and with this milk they may be better protected.”
As more and more people become infected, the supply of breast milk from women with antibodies might increase, but the limiting factor is that there is unlikely ever to be enough to meet demand.
She added that if the tests as they suspect show that the method works, there will not be enough to go around and as a result “we will have to make choices”.
Women who have had a proven COVID-19 infection and are breastfeeding can register for the study at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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