Association of Human Milk Antibody Induction, Persistence, and Neutralizing Capacity With SARS-CoV-2 Infection vs mRNA Vaccination

JAMA Pediatr. 2022 Feb 1;176(2):159-168. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.4897.


Importance: Long-term effect of parental COVID-19 infection vs vaccination on human milk antibody composition and functional activity remains unclear.

Objective: To compare temporal IgA and IgG response in human milk and microneutralization activity against SARS-CoV-2 between lactating parents with infection and vaccinated lactating parents out to 90 days after infection or vaccination.

Design, setting, and participants: Convenience sampling observational cohort (recruited July to December 2020) of lactating parents with infection with human milk samples collected at days 0 (within 14 days of diagnosis), 3, 7, 10, 28, and 90. The observational cohort included vaccinated lactating parents with human milk collected prevaccination, 18 days after the first dose, and 18 and 90 days after the second dose.

Exposures: COVID-19 infection diagnosed by polymerase chain reaction within 14 days of consent or receipt of messenger RNA (mRNA) COVID-19 vaccine (BNT162b2 or mRNA-1273).

Main outcomes and measures: Human milk anti-SARS-CoV-2 receptor-binding domain IgA and IgG and microneutralization activity against live SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Results: Of 77 individuals, 47 (61.0%) were in the infection group (mean [SD] age, 29.9 [4.4] years), and 30 (39.0%) were in the vaccinated group (mean [SD] age, 33.0 [3.4] years; P = .002). The mean (SD) age of infants in the infection and vaccinated group were 3.1 (2.2) months and 7.5 (5.2) months, respectively (P < .001). Infection was associated with a variable human milk IgA and IgG receptor-binding domain-specific antibody response over time that was classified into different temporal patterns: upward trend and level trend (33 of 45 participants [73%]) and low/no response (12 of 45 participants [27%]). Infection was associated with a robust and quick IgA response in human milk that was stable out to 90 days after diagnosis. Vaccination was associated with a more uniform IgG-dominant response with concentrations increasing after each vaccine dose and beginning to decline by 90 days after the second dose. Vaccination was associated with increased human milk IgA after the first dose only (mean [SD] increase, 31.5 [32.6] antibody units). Human milk collected after infection and vaccination exhibited microneutralization activity. Microneutralization activity increased throughout time in the vaccine group only (median [IQR], 2.2 [0] before vaccine vs 10 [4.0] after the first dose; P = .003) but was higher in the infection group (median [IQR], 20 [67] at day 28) vs the vaccination group after the first-dose human milk samples (P = .002). Both IgA and non-IgA (IgG-containing) fractions of human milk from both participants with infection and those who were vaccinated exhibited microneutralization activity against SARS-CoV-2.

Conclusions and relevance: In this cohort study of a convenience sample of lactating parents, the pattern of IgA and IgG antibodies in human milk differed between COVID-19 infection vs mRNA vaccination out to 90 days. While infection was associated with a highly variable IgA-dominant response and vaccination was associated with an IgG-dominant response, both were associated with having human milk that exhibited neutralization activity against live SARS-CoV-2 virus.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Antibodies, Neutralizing / blood*
  • COVID-19 / immunology*
  • COVID-19 Vaccines / immunology*
  • Cohort Studies
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Immunoglobulin A / immunology
  • Immunoglobulin G / immunology
  • Infant
  • Lactation
  • Male
  • Milk, Human / immunology*
  • SARS-CoV-2 / immunology*


  • Antibodies, Neutralizing
  • COVID-19 Vaccines
  • Immunoglobulin A
  • Immunoglobulin G