All circulating immunoglobulin G (IgG) antibodies in human newborns are of maternal origin1 and transferred across the placenta to provide passive immunity until newborn IgG production takes over 15 weeks after birth2. However, maternal IgG can also negatively interfere with newborn vaccine responses3. The concentration of IgG increases sharply during the third trimester of gestation and children delivered extremely preterm are believed to largely lack this passive immunity1,2,4. Antibodies to individual viruses have been reported5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12, but the global repertoire of maternal IgG, its variation in children, and the epitopes targeted are poorly understood. Here, we assess antibodies against 93,904 epitopes from 206 viruses in 32 preterm and 46 term mother–child dyads. We find that extremely preterm children receive comparable repertoires of IgG as term children, albeit at lower absolute concentrations and consequent shorter half-life. Neutralization of the clinically important respiratory syncytial virus (RS-virus) was also comparable until three months of age. These findings have implications for understanding infectious disease susceptibility, vaccine development, and vaccine scheduling in newborn children.

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Code availability

The pipeline for processing the VirScan data has been published previously; the script for all other analyses described in the paper is available from https://github.com/Brodinlab/maternal_abs.

Data availability

All VirScan sequencing data (Figs. 1 and 2) is deposited at the NCBI Sequence Read Archive database (PRJNA516865). The ELISA (Fig. 3) and virus neutralization raw data (Fig. 4) are readily available upon request.

Additional information

Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.


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We are grateful to all the families taking part in this study, all colleagues at the Karolinska University Hospital neonatology and delivery wards. We are also indebted to S. Elledge and T. Kula at Harvard University for sharing the VirScan bacteriophage library and their assistance. The study was funded by a European Research Council starting grant (no. ERC-StG-677559), Wallenberg Clinical Fellow grant (no. MMW 2017.0127), Karolinska Institutet (KI Research Assistant 2015 grant), and the Swedish Research council (grant no. 2015–03028) to P.B.

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Author notes

  1. These authors contributed equally: Christian Pou, Dieudonné Nkulikiyimfura.


  1. Science for Life Laboratory, Department of Women’s and Children’s Health, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Christian Pou
    • , Dieudonné Nkulikiyimfura
    • , Axel Olin
    • , Tadepally Lakshmikanth
    • , Jaromir Mikes
    • , Jun Wang
    • , Yang Chen
    • , Anna Karin Bernhardsson
    •  & Petter Brodin
  2. Department of Clinical Science, Intervention and Technology, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Ewa Henckel
    • , Anna Gustafsson
    •  & Kajsa Bohlin
  3. Department of Newborn Medicine, Karolinska University Hospital, Stockholm, Sweden

    • Ewa Henckel
    • , Anna Karin Bernhardsson
    • , Anna Gustafsson
    • , Kajsa Bohlin
    •  & Petter Brodin


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C.P. established the VirScan method and performed all the experimental analyses using VirScan and ELISA. D.N. and P.B. performed the computational analyses. E.H., A.K.B., P.B., A.G., and K.B. enrolled the children and collected the samples. A.O., T.L., J.M., and J.W. assisted with sample organization, processing, and metadata analysis. Y.C. developed the data analysis infrastructure and database. P.B., E.H., and K.B. designed the study. P.B., D.N., and C.P. created the figures and wrote the manuscript with input from all coauthors.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Petter Brodin.

Extended data

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 Parental repertoires of antiviral antibodies.

    a, Viruses targeted by antibodies in fathers. b, Viruses targeted by antibodies in mothers.

  2. Extended Data Fig. 2 Preterm/term repertoires of antiviral antibodies.

    Principal component analysis based of global antiviral repertoires (species level). Each dot represents a unique individual child (n = 102); the first sample available at birth or first days of life is used as in Fig. 1d and the dots are colored by gestational age at birth for each child.

  3. Extended Data Fig. 3 Antibodies to immunodominant epitopes in preterm and term children.

    The frequencies of maternal IgG to 70 immunodominant epitopes (mean frequency > 50% of seropositive children) in term (x axis) and preterm (y axis) children. The point size represents the mean frequencies in all children.

  4. Extended Data Fig. 4 Neutralizing capacity of anti-influenza A antibodies in preterm and term children.

    Dilution curve and percentage neutralizing capacity of maternal antibodies in cord blood (preterm n = 13, term n = 10). The points indicate the mean values and the error bars define the minimum and maximum values of viral neutralization.

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