Practically since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have noticed neurological and mental health symptoms among recovered patients and expressed concern. Much as the polio pandemic of the mid-20th century left a generation of children in wheelchairs and crutches, it is possible that the COVID-19 pandemic could leave a future generation struggling with neurodevelopmental diseases. The challenge, at least when it comes to diagnosing these ailments in younger patients, is that it can take years for experts to build up the necessary body of research.
Researchers from Harvard Medical School and Mass General Brigham studied 7,772 infants who were delivered during the pandemic. Within that cohort, 222 were born to mothers who had “a positive SARS-CoV-2 polymerase chain reaction test during pregnancy” — in other words, were exposed to the virus that caused COVID-19. The researchers found that infants whose mothers had this exposure were “more likely to receive a neurodevelopmental diagnosis in the first 12 months after delivery, even after accounting for preterm delivery.” Most of these disorders that were diagnosed involved either movement or speech and language.
The news might seem immediately alarming to those who had COVID-19 while pregnant. But it is crucial to note the limitations to this type of research, many of which have to do with how neurodevelopmental diseases are diagnosed in the first place. For example, autism is not usually diagnosed until a child’s second birthday at the earliest, and children conceived during the early days of the pandemic have not yet reached that milestone.
“This study is ‘hypothesis generating’ but, as the authors state, their findings do not suggest a definitive link between COVID exposure in utero and neurodevelopmental delays,” Dr. Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease doctor and professor of medicine at the University of California–San Francisco, told Salon by email. “In fact, a mother diagnosed with COVID during pregnancy may experience significant stress, and we saw in the 1918 pandemic that stress experienced by mothers during the pandemic led to significant effects on the children later on in terms of health and socioeconomic attainment.”
“This observation is a serious concern and must be taken seriously,” Dr. Benjamin wrote to Salon, describing it as “another example of how early evidence raises red flags.”
Gandhi argued that a logical conclusion of the study is that “pregnant women should be vaccinated against COVID to avoid COVID infection during pregnancy (since the vaccines are safe and effective), and that physicians should help pregnant women with stress management during pregnancy.”
Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, echoed Gandhi’s belief that the study reinforces the public need for widespread vaccination. (Neither Gandhi nor Benjamin were involved in the study.)
“This observation is a serious concern and must be taken seriously,” Benjamin wrote to Salon, describing it as “another example of how early evidence raises red flags. It also gives more evidence on the need for pregnant women to get vaccinated to protect their babies to reduce the risks of preventable developmental problems. We will continue to learn more about these risks with more study.”
Questions about the effect of COVID-19 on a developing fetus have swirled since the onset of the pandemic. Indeed, research reveals that pregnant people face a higher risk of experiencing severe illness from COVID-19 compared to the rest of the population. Likewise, several studies have having COVID-19 during pregnancy increases the risk of preterm birth, stillbirth, preeclampsia, and other complications.