Study finds COVID-19 may cause placenta damage

Posted at 6:21 PM, May 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-28 23:03:32-04

OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — For expecting moms, COVID-19 has added a lot of unknowns to an already tough and sometimes uncertain time in their lives.

Since the virus is so new, we don't know a lot about how the disease affects pregnancy.

A first of its kind study may have found a link between COVID-19 and placenta abnormalities. It was done by Northwestern Medicine and published in the American Journal of Clinical Pathology

Researchers followed 16 women, all who had COVID-19 during their pregnancy. One woman had a miscarriage in her second trimester, the other 15 gave birth to healthy babies. Injuries were found in the placenta of all 16 women.

“There was a change in the arteries in the maternal side that transmit the oxygen and nutrients to the baby and it appears there was some affect then that could potentially have downstream affects for the fetus,” Dr. Emily Patel, Maternal-Fetal Medicine Specialist, Methodist said.

The placenta acts as the fetus' lungs, gut, kidneys, and liver.

The Northwestern Medicine study found insufficient blood flow from the mother to the fetus might interfere with the placenta's role in getting oxygen and nutrients to the growing baby.

Study co-author Dr. Emily Miller, Assistant Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Feinberg and a Northwestern Medicine Obstetrician, said she doesn't want to paint a scary picture but is worried.

“The placenta acts like a ventilator for the fetus,” Dr. Miller said. “And if it gets damaged, there can be dire outcomes. In this very limited study, these findings provide some signs that the ventilator might not work as well for as long as we’d like it to."

Even if only half of the placenta is still working, she points out, babies are often completely fine.

Dr. Patel said it's encouraging COVID-19 doesn't seem to be directly passed downstream, from mother to fetus. But she agrees with closer monitoring.

“Things like growth restriction, potentially preeclampsia, that can manifest because of changes in placenta,” Dr. Patel said.

The study raises a lot of questions about how COVID-19 affects pregnancy. More research still needs to be done.

Previous research found children who were in utero during the 1918-19 flu pandemic, which is often compared to the current COVID-19 pandemic, have lifelong lower incomes and higher rates of cardiovascular disease. Flu doesn't cross the placenta, Dr. Jeffery Goldstein, Assistant Professor of Pathology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a Northwestern Medicine Pathologist said, so whatever is causing life-long problems in those people is most likely due to immune activity and injury to the placenta.

"Our study, and other studies like it, are trying to get on the ground floor for this exposure so we can think about what research questions we should be asking in these kids and what can or should we do now to mitigate these same types of outcomes," Goldstein said.