Amid the ongoing pandemic, a New York-based scientist is studying breast milk's potential to protect against coronavirus. Rebecca Powell, a human milk immunologist, researcher, and assistant professor at The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, is researching whether or not antibodies found in breast milk can protect against the novel coronavirus.
While studies have already proven that breast milk has a number of benefits for babies' immune systems — helping to ward off a number of diseases and infections both during breastfeeding and after being weaned — it's less clear if it could protect against coronavirus. In an effort to examine breast milk's potential to protect against COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus currently infecting millions of people around the world, Powell is looking to obtain breast milk samples from women living in New York City, a hot spot for the virus, or who have been confirmed to have had the virus.
Powell told VICE News that she intends to check each sample she receives for COVID-19 antibodies to determine if the supplier was infected or exposed to the virus. Next she'll determine how many antibodies are present, what classes they are, how resistant they are, and, finally, whether they have the ability to fight off the novel coronavirus. Romper has reached out to Powell for additional comment.
While Powell's research will likely take time to complete, Dr. Sharon Donovan, president of The International Society for Research on Human Milk and Lactation and the Melissa M. Noel Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois' Department of Food Science and Nutrition, tells Romper there's "a biological plausibility" COVID-19 antibodies will be present in the breast milk of women infected with the virus.
"In particular to COVID, if a woman is infected her body will produce antibodies to COVID and those antibodies will be passed into milk, so there is a biological plausibility that antibodies to COVID will be in human milk," Donovan, who is not affiliated with Powell or her research, says.
While scientists like Powell are working toward studying breast milk for coronavirus antibodies, there's currently no concrete proof that drinking breast milk can cure or protect adults from the novel coronavirus. That lack of proof, however, reportedly hasn't stopped some individuals from buying breast milk online in hopes that drinking it might boost their immune system. According to a report from The Daily Beast, milk sellers from around the country have reported an increase in interested buyers looking to personally consume breast milk on the off chance it can protect them against coronavirus.
News of the trend has some doctors advising caution. "First of all, should adults be buying breast milk on the internet? No," Donovan tells Romper. "Second, there’s really no good evidence that adult humans drinking human milk will in general improve their immunity."
Dr. Dyan Hes, the medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics in New York City, echoed a similar message in an interview with CBS News, telling the network such claims were hypothetical. "There is no proof that breast milk, at all, can cure COVID or give you antibodies. There is no data that I know of that has been published about it."
In fact, Donovan tells Romper that adults looking to boost their immunity by drinking breast milk bought online could end up endangering themselves. While very limited early research has suggested that COVID-19 does not transmit through breast milk, Donovan notes that other viruses have been found to pass into breast milk.
"We do know that other viruses like HIV and Cytomegalovirus and other viruses could be in human milk, so you could put yourself at risk of getting other diseases," she tells Romper. "You also don't know, does that person take pharmaceutical drugs for health, do they smoke, do they drink, do they take drugs of abuse. Any of those things can pass into human milk."
While milk purchased for babies from a milk bank is screened to ensure safety, many doctors as well as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have strongly recommend against buying milk online from public websites or sellers due to the potential for dangerous bacteria. What's more, a 2013 study from researchers at Nationwide Children's Hospital found that more than three-fourths of the breast milk samples bought online contained illness-causing bacteria and evidence of poor collection, storage, and shipping.
Even Powell told VICE News that, should antibodies in breast milk be found to have protective capabilities against the novel coronavirus, the milk wouldn't be served up directly in a glass. Instead, the antibodies found in the milk would have to be purified and then transfused.
As for drinking breast milk to boost your immune system? "I would not recommend that," Hes told CBS News. "I think you could take some Vitamin C and Zinc if you want to but do not buy breast milk to prevent COVID, that is not going to help you, no."
Powell told VICE News she's received significant interest from breastfeeding mothers eager to donate their milk and that she plans to collect samples for a year or more.
If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all of Romper’s parents + coronavirus coverage here, and Bustle’s constantly updated, general “what to know about coronavirus” here.
Sarah A. Keim, Joseph S. Hogan, Kelly A. McNamara, Vishnu Gudimetla, Chelsea E. Dillon, Jesse J. Kwiek and Sheela R. Geraghty (2013). Microbial Contamination of Human Milk Purchased Via the Internet. Pediatrics. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-1687
Sharon Donovan, PhD, president of The International Society for Research on Human Milk and Lactation and Professor of Nutrition & the Melissa M. Noel Endowed Chair at the University of Illinois' Department of Food Science and Nutrition