Newborn babies are very unlikely to become severely ill with Covid-19, according to research that puts to rest one of the key fears about the disease.
And researchers have also concluded that the chances of a baby catching the virus from their infected mother is very slim.
Just 66 babies out of 118,000 born in the UK between March and April, at the peak of the first wave, caught the illness in their first month of life — the equivalent of one in 1,785 births or 0.06 per cent.
Of the babies that got the disease 28 were classed as severely ill and suffered a high temperature, breathing problems, or bouts of coughing or vomiting.
But only four needed to be admitted to an intensive care unit (six per cent) and just three needed a ventilator, which the researchers claimed offered proof that the risk is slim.
Between six and 30 per cent of newborns need to be admitted to intensive care for specialist treatment with other respiratory illnesses, studies have shown.
Above are the symptoms when the baby was diagnosed with Covid-19
This table shows possible sources and confirmed sources of Covid-19 infection in newborns
WHAT CARE DID THE 66 BABIES RECEIVE?
Number of babies
Imperial College London researchers revealed the extremely low risk Covid-19 posed to infants after sifting through births between March and April registered by the British Paediatric Surveillance Unit (BPSU).
When a newborn with coronavirus was reported, they dispatched a team to confirm the diagnosis and establish the baby’s characteristics and how they fared during the infection.
This data was then used by the scientists to establish the risk to infants from coronavirus.
They split infants into either severe or non-severe illness categories.
The severe category included those that had a high temperature, breathing problems, cough, poor feeding, vomiting or diarrhoea alongside a low white blood cell count – cells used to fight off infection – and an abnormal chest X-ray. Whether a child needed a ventilator was not considered to be a sign of a severe illness.
Their study, published in The Lancet, Child and Adolescent Health, found none of the 66 babies that were infected died from the virus – but one died of an unspecified cause.
‘It’s about the total number of cases of babies with coronavirus, which means it’s very rare,’ study lead author Dr Chris Gale told MailOnline.
‘But if you look at the data, only three of the babies were on ventilators and one of these was premature.
‘I think the proportion of babies that would be ventilated from other severe infections such as streptococcus would be far higher.’
‘We know newborns don’t really get sick with Covid,’ Dr Julian Tang, a virologist at the University of Leicester told MailOnline.
‘Newborns have no problems, infants have no problems, pregnant women have no problems and children have no problems.’
Dr Tang said the figures showed ‘not very many’ infants were catching coronavirus, adding: ‘Coronavirus is generally not clinically severe in newborns.
That’s different from flu and other respiratory viruses that can cause issues in newborns and infants.’
The US-based Centre for Disease Control (CDC) warns parents that children younger than five are at ‘high risk’ of developing flu complications and long-term problems including heart disease or asthma.
Seventeen of the babies that had Covid in the Imperial study were born to mothers who had tested positive for the disease.
As many as 34 who tested positive had at least one adult in their immediate family or close circle who suffered from the virus.
Eight who were not born to a mother with Covid-19 were thought to have contracted the virus in hospital, and two during birth. It was not clear how every baby caught the illness.
By July, 58 of the babies in the study had been discharged from hospital, while seven were still on wards.
Above is the date of diagnosis with Covid-19 and the age at which a baby was diagnosed with the virus
The scientists also found 16 of the babies with Covid-19 had been born prematurely, which is higher than average in the UK population.
Nearly half of the babies who developed a severe infection (29 or 45 per cent) were from Black, Asian or minority ethnic groups (BAME).
This gave an incidence rate around 11.1 babies per 10,000 births, far above the rate in white babies at 4.6 per 10,000. It is not clear why, however.
Some hospitals separated infected mothers and babies at the peak of the first wave but the scientists said their research suggested this was not necessary.
Of the 17 babies who tested positive after being born to a mother with Covid, seven developed the infection despite being separated from their mothers. Eight got the infection when they were not separated, and for two the situation is not known.
‘This supports UK and international guidance to keep mother and baby together even when the mother is suspected or known to have Covid-19’, the team said in their study.
Dr Gale said: ‘This study will hopefully provide some reassurance, as it suggests severe Covid-19 infection in newborns is very rare.
‘Most babies only develop mild symptoms when infected with the virus and make a full recovery.
‘This research also supports UK and international guidance to keep mother and baby together even when the mother is known or suspected to have Covid-19.’
He added: ‘Although this study did show six babies may have contracted hospital-acquired Covid-19, this data was from the beginning of the pandemic, and infection control measures on neonatal and paediatric units have improved dramatically over the past six months.’
Parents of sick, newborn babies are being prevented from seeing their children on hospital wards because of strict coronavirus rules (stock image)
Professor Jenny Kurinczuk, from Oxford University, said they found a ‘higher than expected’ proportion of babies were from BAME backgrounds.
‘In the meantime however, parents may find some reassurance that severe Covid-19 infection, even in the first wave of the pandemic, was rare in babies from the BAME community,’ the team added.
It comes after it was revealed parents of sick, newborn babies, are being prevented from seeing their children on hospital wards because of strict coronavirus rules.
Many are being told they can only spend two hours a day with their tiny babies – and some hospitals are limiting daily visits to just one parent, a survey by baby charity Bliss has found.
In some cases, parents of seriously ill newborns who later died have reported that the social distancing rules drawn up by hospitals meant the precious time they had by their babies’ sides was cut cruelly short.
Normally, parents are allowed 24-hour access on special care baby units.
Guidance from national bodies, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, is clear that parents of sick children should not be considered ‘visitors’.
Bliss is calling on NHS England to introduce a national framework guaranteeing parents access to neonatal units ‘as a matter of urgency’.
Its chief executive, Caroline Lee-Davey, said: ‘Our smallest and sickest babies need their parents at their side to give them the best chance of survival, even during a pandemic.’