COVID Can Destroy the Placenta and Cause Stillbirths During Pregnancy in Rare Cases

The CDC has urged pregnant people to get vaccinated against COVID-19 because of the potential risks to the mother and fetus

COVID Pregnancy
Pregnant woman. Photo: getty

COVID-19 can destroy the placenta and lead to stillbirths during pregnancy in rare cases, according to new research, further highlighting the potential risks of the virus to the mother and fetus.

The virus can directly attack and destroy the placenta, cutting off its life-giving supply of oxygen and nutrients to the developing fetus and causing asphyxiation and death, the study, published in the journal Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine, found.

Stillbirth is one of several potential issues the Centers for Disease Control and OB-GYNs have warned can occur in pregnant people who contract COVID-19, and why they've urged them to get vaccinated.

For this study, researchers from 12 countries, including the U.S., looked at placental tissue from 64 stillbirths and four newborns who died shortly after birth. All of the fetuses were from mothers who were unvaccinated and had COVID-19 during pregnancy.

"We have never seen this level of destruction from an infectious illness before. It rendered the placenta unfit to carry out its duties," Dr. David Schwartz, a perinatal pathologist and lead author of the study, told NBC News. "These fetuses and newborns died from asphyxiation due to lack of oxygen."

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COVID-19 appeared to cause three issues in the placenta: a build-up of a protein that can cause blood clots, the death of cells in its protective layer and inflammation.

The researchers found that around three-quarters of the placenta was damaged in each case, making it unable to function.

"It's almost the exact opposite of what we see in other infectious diseases like zika, rubella or syphilis," Schwartz said. "It's not the fetus that is being attacked and destroyed by the virus. It's the placenta."

The CDC has issued several "urgent" advisories telling pregnant women to get vaccinated against COVID-19 due to the significant risks of hospitalization or death from the virus. In a recent study of over 144,000 pregnancy records between Dec. 2020 and Oct. 2021, researchers found that about 91% of COVID-19 hospitalizations, 98% of critical care admissions and "all baby deaths" in pregnant women were in unvaccinated women.

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