In-Depth: Women pregnant with boys mount a different immune response to COVID

Posted at 6:22 PM, Oct 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-29 21:53:46-04

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Women pregnant with a boy mount fewer protective antibodies to a SARS-CoV-2 infection than women expecting a girl, according to newly published research.

Researchers in Boston examined the placentas of 38 women infected with COVID. They found surprising differences in the immune response based on the sex of the fetus.

Not only did women carrying boys produce fewer antibodies to the virus to begin with, they transferred fewer antibodies to the fetus, according to study co-author Dr. Andrea Edlow, a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

The results published in Science Translational Medicine raise the possibility that women carrying boys are even more susceptible than those carrying girls, but Dr. Edlow said the difference in risk is likely minimal.

“If you’re pregnant, you’re at high risk,” she said. “I think whether or not you’re carrying a boy versus a girl may slightly modify that risk, but the risk to you is so much higher than a non-pregnant person of your age that that will trump everything.”

Pregnant women are three times more likely to wind up in the intensive care unit if they get infected with COVID and nearly twice as likely to die from it compared to women who are not pregnant, according to data from the CDC.

Other findings in the paper suggest the baby’s sex may influence long-term health risks after an infection.

The researchers found the male placenta gets more activated when there’s an infection compared to the female placenta. That effectively results in more inflammation in the tissues surrounding the baby, which previous research has linked to greater risks of autism, ADHD, and learning difficulties, Dr. Edlow said.

Following the 1918 pandemic, studies linked inflammation in the placenta from infection to higher rates of schizophrenia, Edlow said.

“I don’t know what we’re going to see with the generation of kids that were exposed to COVID-19 in utero. I hope that it is not anything like that, but I think it’s something important for us to think about,” she said.

That’s why public health officials say it’s so important for all pregnant moms to get vaccinated. The CDC issued a plea late last month, urging pregnant women to get immunized. The agency said 97 percent of pregnant women hospitalized from COVID are unvaccinated. Cases of women dying from COVID during pregnancy hit a new high in August, the most recent month of data available.

Dr. Edlow’s team is still studying whether the baby’s sex affects the strength of the vaccine response, but she says getting the shots (pregnant women desperately need two doses, studies show) is the best thing for the mother and the baby -- boy or girl.

“When moms get vaccinated, their antibody levels are through the roof compared to what they get from natural infection. That will definitely result in more being transferred to the baby and more protection for your baby,” said Edlow.