While it’s important to follow public health orders to reduce spread of COVID-19, experts say that all the antibacterial wipes and physical distancing could have long-term impacts on our microbiomes — the collection of microbes that live on and inside our bodies. (Pixabay.com)

While it’s important to follow public health orders to reduce spread of COVID-19, experts say that all the antibacterial wipes and physical distancing could have long-term impacts on our microbiomes — the collection of microbes that live on and inside our bodies. (Pixabay.com)

Isolation and sanitation during COVID-19 may affect human microbiome, scientists say

When we hug someone, travel to another country or get our hands dirty, we acquire new microbes

As people around the world remain isolated in their homes, avoiding close contact with others and meticulously sanitizing their hands and surfaces, scientists warn there may be unintended consequences of these necessary pandemic protocols.

While it’s important to follow public health orders to reduce spread of COVID-19, experts say that all the antibacterial wipes and physical distancing could have long-term impacts on our microbiomes — the collection of microbes that live on and inside our bodies.

When we hug someone, travel to another country or get our hands dirty, we acquire new microbes, said Brett Finlay, a University of British Columbia microbiologist. Although some microbes can make us sick, others are good for us, and a diverse and rich microbiome is essential to our health, he said.

Finlay said the discovery of pasteurization in the late 1800s kicked off about a century of society being “hellbent” on getting rid of microbes, and infectious diseases declined as a result. But the loss of microbial diversity has been linked to conditions including asthma, obesity, diabetes and brain and cardiovascular diseases, he said.

So, especially over the past decade, experts like Finlay, who co-wrote a book titled “Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Our Children from an Oversanitized World,” have been trying to persuade people to be a little less afraid of germs.

“We were cruising along, starting to realize these microbes are good. Maybe we shouldn’t wipe them all out. Maybe we should let our kids play outside and maybe we don’t have to use hand sanitizer five times on the playground,” Finlay said.

“Then COVID hit and that has thrown a wrench in everything.”

Finlay recently co-authored a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that called for more study of how this extended period of near-global lockdown has changed our microbiomes and could affect human health long-term.

The paper was the result of ongoing discussions at research organization CIFAR’s humans and the microbiome program, where Finlay is co-director. It says we could see impacts to global immunity, allergies and rates of conditions like asthma and diabetes.

It also points out that the COVID-19 pandemic could deepen social inequalities, with changes to the microbiome depending on whether someone lives in a high- or low-income country and their access to health care, clean water, sewage systems and healthy food.

But Finlay noted there are things people can do to promote a healthy microbiome while following COVID-19 rules. Spending time outdoors, gardening, exercising, eating a fibre-rich diet, avoiding unnecessary antibiotics and having physical contact with members of your household and pets can all help, he said.

Kathy McCoy, scientific director of the University of Calgary’s International Microbiome Centre, said she expected the intense focus on hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic to have a “dramatic” effect on people’s microbiomes.

She said the microbiomes of most healthy adults without underlying conditions should “bounce back” after the pandemic, though, as long as they don’t gain weight during this time.

But she also said inequality will play a major role — people who can work from home may be cooking more and eating healthier meals than usual, while those who have lost their jobs may have to rely on food banks or cheap, processed food.

Both Finlay and McCoy cautioned that babies born during the pandemic could experience lifelong impacts.

McCoy said early life is an important period of time for developing the immune system through exposure to microbes. Newborns birthed through caesarian section are already exposed to fewer important bacteria at the start of their lives.

Now, during the pandemic, parents may be more hyper-vigilant in bathing their babies and cleaning their homes, she said, and babies are having far less interaction with adult members of their extended family or other infants who could pass on their microbes.

“Babies not being able to interact with their grandparents or other babies, just (not) having that really solid immune education in early life, I worry: what are the long-term implications of that?”

She said it would be worthwhile to follow a cohort of babies born during the pandemic and compare their microbiomes with older data of babies born pre-COVID-19. The rates of immune diseases, such as asthma and allergies, should also be monitored over time to see if there is a spike associated with infants born now, she said.

There are steps parents can take to improve their babies’ microbial health during COVID-19, including breastfeeding if possible, playing outdoors and getting a pet. Babies raised in homes with dogs have been shown to have lower rates of asthma and allergies.

McCoy said post-pandemic, we have to find a balance between avoiding infection and building a healthy, diverse microbiome.

“We don’t know that balance yet, but we have to try to keep understanding this relationship,” she said. “Maybe if we try to learn from this pandemic, we’ll be better prepared for the next one.”

Laura Dhillon Kane, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Rose Sawka, 91, reaches out to her son Terry Sawka, on a daily visit through the window, from inside Acropolis Manor where a COVID-19 outbreak took hold on Jan 19. Rose was vaccinated for the virus on Jan. 20 and as of Feb. 25 has remained virus free. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
No increases of COVID-19 at Acropolis -16 residents now recovered

Vaccinations have helped to stabilize Prince Rupert long-term care facility virus numbers

A health care worker prepares to test a Coastal GasLink field worker for COVID-19. (Coastal GasLink photo)
Coastal GasLink begins COVID screening of pipeline workers

Construction is once again ramping up following Northern Health approval of COVID management plan

BC Bus North was implemented under the NDP provincial government in 2018 when Greyhound cancelled services across northern BC. The transportation funding expires at the end of March 2021. (Photo: B.C. Transit)
BC Liberals call for immediate govt. renewal of BC Bus North funding

BC Liberals spent years ignoring need for better transportation in the North - Jennifer Rice, MLA

Prince Rupert Tourism is benefitting from funding for new welcome and wayfinding signage from the COVID-19 Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program. McClymont Park on the gateway into Prince Rupert is one of the first things tourists see entering the city by road. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)
$695,000 Community Economic Recovery funds to benefit local organizations

Prince Rupert Tourism and Gitga’at Development Corporation to receive COVID-19 recovery funds

Wainwright Marine Services Ltd.’s “Ingenika” tugboat went missing in the Garner Canal area south and east of Kitimat on Feb. 11, resulting in two deaths and the rescue of a third man. (Wainwright Marine Photo)
Tug union demands Transport Canada protect workers along B.C. coast and rivers

ILWU makes safety demands following the deaths of two men and the rescue of a third

Abbotsford’s Kris Collins turned to TikTok out of boredom when the provincial COVID-19 lockdown began in March 2020. She now has over 23 million followers on the video app. Photo: Submitted
Internet famous: Abbotsford’s Kris Collins is a TikTok comedy queen

Collins has found surprise stardom alone with a phone

A Vancouver restaurant owner was found guilty of violating B.C.’s Human Rights Code by discriminating against customers on the basis of their race. (Pixabay)
Vancouver restaurant owner ordered to pay $4,000 to customers after racist remark

Referring to patrons as ‘you Arabs’ constitutes discrimination under B.C.’s Human Rights Code, ruling deems

Nanaimo children’s author and illustrator Lindsay Ford’s latest book is ‘Science Girl.’ (Photo courtesy Lindsay Ford)
B.C. children’s writer encourages girls to pursue the sciences in new book

Lindsay Ford is holding a virtual launch for latest book, ‘Science Girl’

Pig races at the 145th annual Chilliwack Fair on Aug. 12, 2017. Monday, March 1, 2021 is Pig Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Feb. 28 to March 6

Pig Day, Canadian Bacon Day and Grammar Day are all coming up this week

Staff from the Marine Mammal Rescue Centre, passersby, RCMP and Nanaimo Fire Rescue carried a sick 300-kilogram steller sea lion up the steep bluff at Invermere Beach in north Nanaimo in an attempt to save the animal’s life Thursday. (Photo courtesy Marine Mammal Rescue Centre)
300-kilogram sea lion muscled up from B.C. beach in rescue attempt

Animal dies despite efforts of Nanaimo marine mammal rescue team, emergency personnel and bystanders

Doctors and counsellors warn of an increase in panic attacks, anxiety, depression and suicide ideas between ages 10 to 14, in Campbell River. ( Black Press file photo)
Extended pandemic feeding the anxieties of B.C.’s youth

Parents not sure what to do, urged to reach out for help

Kara Sorensen, diagnosed with lung cancer in July, says it’s important for people to view her as healthy and vibrant, rather than sick. (Photo courtesy of Karen Sorensen)
B.C. woman must seek treatment overseas for inoperable lung cancer

Fundraising page launched on Karen Sorensen’s behalf, with a goal of $250,000

Gina Adams as she works on her latest piece titled ‘Undying Love’. (Submitted photo)
‘Toothless’ the kitty inspires B.C. wood carver to break out the chainsaw

Inspired by plight of a toothless cat, Gina Adams offers proceeds from her artwork to help animals

B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson presents bill to delay B.C.’s budget as late as April 30, and allow further spending before that, B.C. legislature, Dec. 8, 2020. (Hansard TV)
How big is B.C.’s COVID-19 deficit? We’ll find out April 20

More borrowing expected as pandemic enters second year

Most Read