Background: Human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) remains the most common cause of severe lower respiratory tract disease amongst infants, and continues to cause annual epidemics of respiratory disease every winter worldwide. Demonstrating placental transmission of viable RSV in human samples is a major paradigm shift in respiratory routes considered likely for RSV transmission.
Methods: Droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) was used to identify RSV present in cord blood mononucleocytes (CBM). CBMs testing positive for RSV were treated with phytohemagglutinin (PHA), PHA and nitric oxide (NO) or PHA, NO and palivizumab, and co-cultured with HeLa cell monolayers. Subsequent immuno-staining for RSV was used to visualize infective viral plaques.
Results: RSV was detected in 26 of 45 samples (57.7%) by ddPCR. CBM's collected in winter were more likely to test positive for RSV (17/21 samples, risk = 80%, OR = 7.08; 95% CI 1.80-27.80; p = 0.005) compared to non-winter months (9/24 samples, 37.5%). RSV plaques were observed in non-treated and treated co-cultured HeLa monolayers.
Conclusions: Demonstrating active RSV in CBMs suggests in utero transmission of infective virus to the fetus without causing overt disease. This is likely to have an important impact on immune development as well as future virus-host interactions, thereby warranting further investigation.