Hoping to ward off a global pandemic with no known cure, Americans have turned to increasingly desperate options: swallowing fish tank cleaner, popping colloidal silver, chugging Alex Jones’ “Superblue Silver Immune Gargle.” But the latest trend comes from a source a little closer to home: human breast milk.
Milk sellers across the country told The Daily Beast they have seen an increase in buyers reaching out to purchase breast milk—not to feed their babies, but to boost their immunity against the new coronavirus. While the practice is rare, and highly discouraged by health experts, the principle behind it is being studied by at least two prominent universities.
“It’s an interesting idea,” said Lars Bode, chair of Collaborative Human Milk Research at the University of California, San Diego. “Maybe not the right thing to do for multiple different reasons.” But the idea that human milk could contain COVID-fighting properties? That, he said, is “not too far-fetched.”
Online breast milk sales are an established market in the U.S., if not a well-regulated one. On websites like Only the Breast and Happy Bellies Happy Babies, self-described “overproducers” market their milk to mothers who underproduce, or to single fathers or gay men who can’t produce milk of their own. Because breast milk is classified as food, it can be traded without the troublesome regulations that apply to most bodily fluids. Sellers have described making up to $20,000 a year hawking their milk for up to $3 an ounce.
But the unregulated nature of the trade means it's also susceptible to scammers and creeps. Sites like Only the Breast are plagued with fetishists who get off on drinking breast milk—and who will pay a pretty penny to drink it directly from the source. Body builders have also gotten in on the action lately, avowing that breast milk is “liquid gold” for muscle growth.
Even before coronavirus, adults were seeking out breast milk because of its known benefits to infants’ immune systems. When exposed to certain viruses, mothers make antibodies that are passed down through their breast milk. Complex sugars called oligosaccharides found in human milk can also help ward off nasty gut bacteria. Some mothers have previously reported selling their milk to people with chronic autoimmune disorders.
Ari Marquez, a seller at Only The Breast, said she often sells to mothers looking to boost their babies’ immune systems—a common request during flu season. But in recent weeks, a man in his midthirties reached out about securing the milk for himself, saying something about how the human hormones would boost his immunity to the coronavirus. (He also liked that this supposed cure was “basically organic.”) Marquez said she sold him 30 oz.
Christie Denham, the founder of Happy Bellies Happy Babies, told The Daily Beast her site has also fielded requests from grown men seeking coronavirus protection in the form of breast milk. One female donor even drank her own breast milk after she came down with what she believed was the virus, hoping to speed her recovery.
That mom, Crystal Nelson, said she got the idea from other women posting similar ideas in her breastfeeding Facebook group.
"Nobody has reached out to me specifically for antibodies, but what they are saying is, ‘Can I drink my own breast milk, will it help me?’” she said.
Along with drinking her own milk, Nelson continued to donate milk to two other mothers throughout her illness. One of the moms had a baby with gastrointestinal problems and felt that the benefits of the breast milk outweighed the negatives of potentially contracting the virus.
“She was fine with it and she said, ‘If you had COVID, I know there would be antibodies in the milk. For the baby, it makes me feel better to have the extra, additive antibodies,’” Nelson said.
Eats on Feets—a website that supports sharing, not selling, breast milk—said the site had seen a spike in virus-related requests as well, though they declined to comment further.
“We have had increased requests for milk from donors who have supposedly recovered from Covid because of the assumed antibodies,” administrator Maria Armstrong said in an email, adding that she “cannot hypothesize about the effect of these antibodies at this time.”
Bode, meanwhile, is happy to hypothesize about the antibodies—though he is less enthusiastic about buying milk online. He compared the process he is studying to the blood treatments currently under development at other universities, in which antibodies from recovered coronavirus patients are passed on to current sufferers through their plasma.
Bode’s lab is still trying to figure out whether the virus can be spread through breast milk. Later, they’ll move on to testing whether the milk contains antibodies or oligosaccharides that can ward off the virus, and whether those oligosaccharides can be synthetically produced at a larger scale.
The downsides of such a cure, Bode said, are pretty low. “They’re made by humans for humans. We don't have to expect any side effects there because you give them to babies every two to three hours,” he explained. “Not only do you have a fairly cheap alternative here, but it’s also a very safe agent to use against the virus.”
Researchers at New York’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai are running a similar study on whether breast milk contains coronavirus antibodies. The researchers were seeking hundreds of samples and as of last week had already surpassed their goal.
Despite the hope posed by the research, Bode actively discouraged people from buying breast milk online. First, it’s unclear if milk even contains coronavirus antibodies—and even then, they would need to come from someone who had recovered from the virus. Second, milk has the potential to pass on other diseases like HIV or hepatitis.
“Buying human milk online from someone who is not tested, not regulated is not the best thing to do,” he said, adding that “the more adults that take human milk, the less babies that get human milk that really need it.”
While it may not be a proven cure at this point, Denham said she’d be happy to donate milk to someone for coronavirus-related reasons if they asked.
“If they came to me and they’re professional about it, I honestly don't really ask them what they’re using it for because I believe in respecting people's privacy,” she said. “But if they said to me, ‘I want to do it only for the COVID-19 reasons, I would say, ‘Absolutely, whatever you need to do to protect you and your family.’”