Duke doctor leads national push to study COVID-19 vaccine in pregnant women

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A Duke doctor is leading the national effort to get pregnant women included in COVID-19 vaccine clinical trials and studies.

Dr. Brenna Hughes, Duke University's Vice Chair of Obstetrics and Quality and Maternal-Fetal Medicine Division Chief, has studied infectious diseases in pregnancy for decades and since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, has shaped guidelines going out to physicians across the U.S. and around the world.

Hughes was tapped to serve on three separate panels, including with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, and the National Institutes of Health.

For the last ten months, she has been providing evidence-based recommendations for physicians on how to treat pregnant women who have contracted the virus.

According to the CDC, pregnant women with COVID-19 are at an increased risk of severe illness and might be at an increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes, such as preterm birth.

"We certainly are seeing very many, very, very ill pregnant patients across the country," said Hughes.

However, pregnant women were not knowingly included in the Pfizer and Moderna clinical trials and data is limited when it comes to the messenger RNA vaccines and pregnancy.

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On Tuesday, Hughes will request that the NIH fund another vaccine study, allowing researchers to follow both, pregnant patients who receive a COVID-19 vaccine and those who choose not to, comparing how they do throughout the course of their pregnancy.

Hughes said ensuring pregnant women are included in vaccine studies moving forward, is vital to not only protecting them, but empowering them.

"Pregnancy is not a reason for patients to not be able to make their own decisions about whether or not they want to receive a therapy that may be helpful to them medically," Hughes said.

Hughes said it was Duke researchers who led studies of flu vaccines' effects on pregnant women and their babies.

"They were able to demonstrate that those protective antibodies that protect people from getting the influenza when they get the vaccine are transferred to the baby and serve to protect the baby as well, but it took years of study to be able to show those," she said.

The mRNA vaccines developed to protect against COVID-19 are different from flu vaccines, but Hughes said she believes they would work in a similar way, creating antibodies that protect not only mom, but baby as well.

Hughes said she expects those antibodies a mother develops after getting vaccinated, would pass to her child through breastmilk as well.

Right now, Hughes said she's concerned, hearing reports of pregnant women who qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine being denied; she warns that could be considered discrimination.

"Withholding a vaccination from people who are pregnant, leads them to not be able to access the same level of safety that other people can achieve," Hughes said.

She advised that pregnant women need to take into account their personal medical history and talk with their OB-GYN if they have concerns about getting vaccinated.

As for her, Hughes said she wouldn't hesitate.

"In my particular situation, I would receive the vaccine if I were pregnant," she said.
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