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

A local resident is concerned about the low voter turnout in the recent school board byelection. (Langley Advance Times files)
LETTER: Few Langley residents bothered to vote in school trustee election

A local letter writer wonders why the current situation didn’t prompt more people to cast ballots

An agreement between the City and the Langley Lions Housing Society would set out income and age requirements for the new Birch replacement building (Langley City image)
Agreement on seniors rental building a first for Langley City

Sets several conditions to ensure project is affordable for low- and moderate-income seniors

Another member of the Peterson Road Elementary School community has tested positive for COVID-19, the Langley school district reported Saturday. (Undated Google Street View image)
Another COVID-19 case reported at Peterson Road Elementary School

School has reported two positive tests in two days

Seveya Jepsen is inviting people to stop by her Pet Food Drive on Saturday, March 6, 2021. (Jepsen family/Special to the Langley Advance Time)
Langley girl’s 10th birthday goes to the dogs, and cats, and rabbits

Seveya Jepsen is concerned that animals have enough food so she’s hosting a pet food drive.

The Kimber family of Boston Bar lost their home in a fire. Blaine Kimber’s daughter created a fundraiser to help rebuild the home with the goal of $100,000. (Screenshot/GoFundMe)
Fundraiser created for Boston Bar family that lost everything in weekend fire

Witnesses say the Kimber family escaped the fire without injury, but their home is a total loss

(The Canadian Press)
‘Worse than Sept. 11, SARS and financial crisis combined’: Tourism industry in crisis

Travel services saw the biggest drop in active businesses with 31 per cent fewer firms operating

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Pictures and notes in from friends and classmates make up a memorial in support and memory of Aubrey Berry, 4, and her sister Chloe, 6, during a vigil held at Willows Beach in Oak Bay, B.C., on December 30, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
Mother of slain daughters supports recent changes to Canada’s Divorce Act

Sarah Cotton-Elliott said she believed her children took a back seat to arranging equal parenting

Victoria man Brett Andersen is asking for people’s help to secure him one of eight free tickets to the moon. (Screenshot/@brettandersen Instagram)
Victoria man wants your help securing a free ticket to the moon

Japanese billionaire offering eight people a trip to the moon

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Most Read