The truth about South Africa’s first neonatal COVID-19 death

The death of a two-day-old baby with COVID-19 in the Western Cape was not due to the coronavirus but complications of premature birth, the head of health for the Western Cape, Dr Keith Cloete, has stated.

“The baby suffered from all the difficulties of prematurity. The primary cause of death was probably more related to the prematurity than to having a positive COVID test,” Cloete said.

Cloete explained that just because the baby tested positive for COVID-19, that doesn’t mean the disease caused by the novel coronavirus was the primary cause of death.

“I just want to make a distinction: we talk about COVID-related deaths. COVID-related deaths is that we have a high index of suspicion and take a COVID test. We will not report on any death that does not have a positive COVID test,” said Cloete.

“I must also stress that COVID is regarded as a natural cause of death. In natural cause of death, we don’t indicate necessarily doing autopsies. In this case, the clinical report is that the baby died of the complications of prematurity rather than of COVID specifically.”

Prof Shabir Madhi, a professor of vaccinology at the University of the Witwatersrand, gave further details about the case to eNCA.

Madhi explained that the reason the two-day-old died was that the baby had very immature lungs.

“The child couldn’t actually oxygenate adequately.”

According to Madhi, the cause of death was hyaline membrane disease and the fact that the child tested positive for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was purely coincidental.

Getting COVID-19 in the womb

While it is significant that the baby did not actually die of COVID-19, it is also significant that doctors currently believe that the mother likely transmitted the disease to the child while it was still in the womb.

“The child was born to a mother that was positive for COVID and the mother probably transmitted the virus to the child,” Madhi said.

This case may yet add to the global scientific understanding about whether and how the virus can be transmitted between pregnant women and their babies.

Until recently, the few small studies that have been published involving women who get COVID-19 in late pregnancy have so far found no evidence of the virus being transmitted between mother and child before birth.

This was despite an early research letter by doctors from Wuhan and Chongqing which theorised that such transmission could be possible.

However, the many confounding factors in these studies meant it was difficult to rule out the possibility that babies were infected with the coronavirus after birth.

More recently, doctors in Toronto, Canada have reported a case which they describe as “probable case of congenital SARS-CoV-2 infection in a liveborn neonate”.

In other words, they have stronger evidence to suggest that transmission of the coronavirus may be possible between an infected mother and baby. The case study was peer-reviewed and published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

Now read: South Africa’s COVID-19 forecasts are completely flawed and we should move to level 1 now – Scientists

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The truth about South Africa’s first neonatal COVID-19 death