UCSF study investigates coronavirus impact on pregnancy

A new UCSF study seeks to better understand how the novel coronavirus affects pregnant women and their babies.

The Pregnancy Coronavirus Outcomes Registry began enrolling pregnant women across the country with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 on March 24. It will track participants for a year to learn how the virus impacts maternal health, fetal development, preterm delivery, newborn health and outcomes for underserved women at higher risk of mortality during pregnancy. The study also will address transmission: whether a mother can pass the infection on to her child during pregnancy and birth or through breast milk.

“This was an urgent need that arose to collect information about pregnancy,” said Vanessa Jacoby, vice chair of research for obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at UCSF. The goal, she says, is to release initial findings within the next several months. “We want information to be available currently while patients and providers are navigating these unknowns.”

And there are a lot of unknowns.

Due to changes in the immune system, pregnant women are more susceptible to complications from respiratory illnesses, Jacoby said.

“What we know is from prior outbreaks of flu-like illness — prior coronaviruses SARS and MERS and H1N1 — that pregnant women have not fared well,” she said.

Initial reports out of China on pregnant women with COVID-19 have been reassuring. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics found that three out of 33 infants born to mothers with COVID-19 tested positive for the disease, but all three babies recovered and tested negative within a week.

“Those data were really early and very small numbers of women,” Jacoby said. “People in different health care settings can have different courses of disease.”

The UCSF study aims to examine the impacts of the coronavirus across a more diverse population. The study is open to women across the United States 14 years or older who are pregnant or have been in the past six weeks and tested positive for COVID-19 or are suspected by a health care provider as having the virus.

As of this week, 163 women have enrolled in the study and hundreds more have expressed interest.

The study will also look at how the coronavirus impacts pregnancy for black or African American women and underserved women who may have worse outcomes due to disparities in health care. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, black or African American women are three times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications.

“Presumably health disparities don’t go away in a global pandemic,” Jacoby said. “Likely they continue on, and the concern is that they might worsen.”

Added Jacoby: “We need answers right now, and the only way we can get answers is by doing a large-scale national study.”

Sarah Feldberg is assistant features editor at The San Francisco Chronicle. Email: sarah.feldberg@sfchronicle.com

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