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Study hopes to understand the impact of exposure to COVID-19 infection early in life on a child’s brain development

Press release issued: 27 June 2022

More than 650,000 babies are born every year [i] in the UK, and during the pandemic some of them will have been exposed to SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus which causes COVID-19. A national study, funded by the charity Action Medical Research, will investigate the long-term impact of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 in the womb or shortly after birth.

It is known that exposure to certain viral infections shortly after birth or during pregnancy can impact a baby’s brain development or affect their development later in life, but it is not known if this is the case with SARS-CoV-2 infection. The SINEPOST (SARS-CoV-2 infection in neonates or in pregnancy) study, led by the University of Bristol in collaboration with researchers from the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit (NPEU) at the University of Oxford, Imperial College London, and University of Leicester, aims to compare the impact of SARS-CoV-2 on the development of children who were exposed to the virus during pregnancy or shortly after birth to infants who have not been exposed to the virus.

Two hundred and fifty-seven infants have already been enrolled into the study, with recruitment ongoing until October 2022. The children will be followed up when they are 21 to 24 months old, with parents or carers being asked to complete questionnaires on how their child is developing.

The questionnaire will include the Ages and Stages Questionnaires (ASQ) used by professionals to monitor a child’s developmental progress; the Liverpool Respiratory Symptoms Questionnaire (LRSQ) which assesses patterns of wheezing and other respiratory symptoms in infants and preschool children; and additional questions about the child’s general health and use of health care services.

Most newborn babies infected with SARS-CoV-2 have mild or no symptoms, however they might be at risk of long-term effects. The SINEPOST study will add to what is already known about the impact of exposure to COVID-19, and increase our understanding of the short- and long-term impact of exposure in newborns.

Dr Ela Chakkarapani, Consultant Senior Lecturer in Neonatology at the Bristol Medical School: Translational Health Sciences (THS), said: "To understand the long-term effects on newborns who are exposed to SARS-CoV-2, we will assess how children develop when they grow using standard developmental questionnaires completed by parents. The results from our study will help inform guidance for pregnant women and new parents and also will help identify children who might need additional support. It will also stimulate research into new interventions to reduce the long-term impact of the virus on children's lives."

Dr Caroline Johnston, Senior Research Manager at Action Medical Research, commented: "Action Medical Research has been at the forefront of funding pioneering research, including the research which led to the development of the polio vaccine. We understand the devastating impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on all people, particularly children. We are committed to funding research that ultimately will improve the health and wellbeing of children and young people."

 A study of 427 pregnant women admitted to hospital with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection between 1 March 2020 and 14 April 2020 found that the number with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection in pregnancy was 4.9 per 1000 pregnant women.[ii] The UK Obstetric Surveillance System (UKOSS) and newborn infants (British Paediatric Surveillance Unit, BPSU) have also identified over 1,300 pregnant women and 100 newborn babies with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection up to August 2020. [iii] [iiii]

Further information

[i] Office for National Statistics, Vital statistics in the UK: births, deaths and marriages

[ii] 'Characteristics and outcomes of pregnant women admitted to hospital with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection in UK: national population based cohort study' by Knight M et al in BMJ

[iii] 'Characteristics and outcomes of pregnant women hospitalised with confirmed SARS-CoV-2 infection in the UK: a national cohort study using the UK Obstetric Surveillance System (UKOSS)' by Knight, M. et al in BMJ 

[iii] 'National active surveillance to understand and inform neonatal care in COVID-19' by Gale, C. et al in Archives of Disease in Childhood-Fetal and Neonatal

About Action Medical Research
Action Medical Research is the leading UK-wide charity saving and changing children’s lives through medical research. For 70 years we’ve helped pioneer ways to prevent disease and develop treatments benefiting millions of people. Our research has helped to beat polio in the UK, develop ultrasound in pregnancy, fight meningitis and prevent stillbirths. But we urgently need to develop more new treatments and cures for sick babies and children and we can’t do it without you.

Join our fight for little lives today.

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