An important piece about misleading science about breastfeeding during the coronavirus pandemic and the damage that cannot be undone.

First published in October 2020.

I never saw a future that I would be sad to see my article published in The Lancet. But in many ways this feels too late.

When the original paper came out in May, my coauthors and I were stunned.

The original article was flawed in methodology and conclusions, while not overtly written as such, indicated to the global health community and policymakers that Covid-19 could be transmitted through breastfeeding.

This would have been unlikely – other coronaviruses, including MERS and SARS, are fragmented by the lactating breast’s innate and adaptive immune mechanisms. The baby in the report had fed at the breast while symptomatic just before sampling making contamination highly likely.

And the paper showed high cycle time (Ct) values, well over 30, suggesting from the outset that fragmentation was also the case for SARS-CoV-2 – part of human milk’s evolutionary selected antiviral mechanisms. And tellingly, two of the four cited papers were non-peer reviewed preprints.

Breastfeeding has been consistently considered safe by the WHO and milk can contain protective antibodies. | Pixabay

More papers have since supplanted this report. Breastfeeding has been consistently considered safe by the World Health Organization (WHO) and milk can contain protective antibodies.

But this case report was published in The Lancet. It has been cited over 70 times already.

Our response was submitted within five days of publication. Others sent letters too. It took 5 months to publish. The damage done by national policies of separating mothers from infants, and the doubt placed in mothers’ minds, are becoming clear.

Others with more commercially minded aims have seized on the uncertainty as an opportunity...

Haste to publish has been part of pandemic culture, but at what cost?

Scientists should not act in isolation from the societies in which they live. Being the ‘first’ may be tremendously exciting, but it has consequences that open a Pandora’s box nigh impossible to close.🔷

Dr Natalie Shenker, Research Fellow in the Faculty of Medicine, Imperial College London.

[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article on 10 October 2020 with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected, and published with the author’s consent. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Pixabay.)

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