Will prenatal exposure to SARS-CoV-2 define a birth cohort with accelerated aging in the century ahead?

J Dev Orig Health Dis. 2021 Oct;12(5):683-687. doi: 10.1017/S204017442000104X. Epub 2020 Nov 10.


The 1918 Influenza pandemic had long-term impacts on the cohort exposed in utero which experienced earlier adult mortality, and more diabetes, ischemic heart disease, and depression after age 50. It is possible that the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic will also have long-term impacts on the cohort that was in utero during the pandemic, from exposure to maternal infection and/or the stress of the pandemic environment. We discuss how COVID-19 disease during pregnancy may affect fetal and postnatal development with adverse impacts on health and aging. Severe maternal infections are associated with an exaggerated inflammatory response, thromboembolic events, and placental vascular malperfusion. We also discuss how in utero exposure to the stress of the pandemic, without maternal infection, may impact health and aging. Several recently initiated birth cohort studies are tracking neonatal health following in utero severe acute respiratory syndrome virus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) exposure. We suggest these cohort studies develop plans for longer-term observations of physical, behavioral, and cognitive functions that are markers for accelerated aging, as well as methods to disentangle the effects of maternal infection from stresses of the pandemic environment. In utero exposure to COVID-19 disease could cause developmental difficulties and accelerated aging in the century ahead. This brief review summarizes elements of the developmental origins of health, disease, and ageing and discusses how the COVID-19 pandemic might exacerbate such effects. We conclude with a call for research on the long-term consequences of in utero exposure to maternal infection with COVID-19 and stresses of the pandemic environment.

Keywords: 1918 epidemic; COVID-19; exposure in utero.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Aging / physiology*
  • COVID-19 / physiopathology*
  • COVID-19 / transmission
  • COVID-19 / virology
  • Child
  • Child Development / physiology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infectious Disease Transmission, Vertical / history
  • Influenza A Virus, H1N1 Subtype / pathogenicity
  • Influenza Pandemic, 1918-1919 / history
  • Influenza Pandemic, 1918-1919 / statistics & numerical data
  • Influenza, Human / history
  • Influenza, Human / physiopathology*
  • Influenza, Human / virology
  • Middle Aged
  • Pandemics / history
  • Pandemics / statistics & numerical data
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious / physiopathology*
  • Pregnancy Complications, Infectious / virology
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / physiopathology*
  • Prenatal Exposure Delayed Effects / virology
  • SARS-CoV-2 / pathogenicity