Could breast milk help stop the spread of coronavirus?

Chinese researchers say whey protein from human breast milk appears to halt viral replication

Breastfeeding baby
(Image credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images)

Human breast milk may help to prevent or treat the novel coronavirus, according to a new study.

The researchers, from the Beijing University of Chemical Technology, say that whey proteins in breast milk can inhibit Sars-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, by “blocking viral attachment, entry and even post-entry viral replication”.

And whey proteins in cow and goat milk may offer a similar, though less effective, protection. The Chinese team found that “cow and goat whey proteins could suppress the coronavirus by about 70%, but the efficacy of human whey was far more impressive at 98%”, The Times reports.

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The findings, published on pre-print specialist site, have not yet been peer-reviewed. But the results appear to support the recommendation by the World Health Organization (WHO) that mothers infected with the coronavirus should continue breastfeeding their babies.

For the study, the researchers exposed cells from the human gut and lungs to Sars-CoV-2. They then looked at what effect breast milk that had been collected in 2017 - prior to the pandemic - had on the cells.

The team “observed almost no viral binding or entry to these healthy cells, as well as the halting of viral replication in already-infected cells”, The Times reports.

“Human milk was able to eliminate the virus in a broader range of cell types” than animal milk, “but the researchers said it was unclear what had caused the difference”, adds the South China Morning Post.

In a further note of reassurance for mothers, a recent US study outlined in a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that breast milk does not spread the coronavirus and “may not be a source of infection for the infant”.

Researchers are now investigating whether breast milk could be used as a treatment for Covid-19.

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Arion McNicoll is a freelance writer at The Week Digital and was previously the UK website’s editor. He has also held senior editorial roles at CNN, The Times and The Sunday Times. Along with his writing work, he co-hosts “Today in History with The Retrospectors”, Rethink Audio’s flagship daily podcast, and is a regular panellist (and occasional stand-in host) on “The Week Unwrapped”. He is also a judge for The Publisher Podcast Awards.