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 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

A housing location for workers on the new Mills Memorial Hospital construction project has been approved by city council. (File photo)
Camp spot proposed for hospital construction workers

As many as 350 outside workers may be needed

Terrace city council are reaching out to the B.C. Office of the Ombudsperson regarding councillor Jessica McCallum-Miller’s resignation on Feb. 22, 2021. (Black Press Media File Photo)
City of Terrace seeking ombudsperson investigation into allegations of systemic racism

Councillor Jessica McCallum-Miller resigned Feb. 22, citing racism

A large provincial grant will make cycling and walking safer in Terrace. (File photo)
Large grant to make walking, cycling safer in Terrace

Pathway will connect old Skeena Bridge to the downtown

Dr. Bonnie Henry leaves the podium after talking about the next steps in B.C.’s COVID-19 Immunization Plan during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Friday, January 22, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito
COVID: 589 new cases in B.C., and 7 new deaths

No new outbreaks being reported Feb. 26

The Canada Revenue Agency says there were 32 tax fraud convictions across the country between April 2019 and March 2020. (Pixabay)
Vancouver man sentenced to 29 months, fined $645K for tax evasion, forgery

Michael Sholz reportedly forged documents to support ineligible tax credits linked to homeownership

Then-Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson looks on as MLA Shirley Bond answers questions during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria. (Chad Hipolito / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
B.C. Liberal party to choose next leader in February 2022

Candidates have until Nov. 30 to declare whether they are running

After nearly 10 months of investigations, Mounties have made an arrest in the tripping of an elderly woman in Burnaby this past April. (RCMP handout)
VIDEO: Mounties charge suspect for tripping elderly woman near Metrotown in April

32-year-old Hayun Song is accused of causing bodily harm to an 84-year-old using her walker

British Columbia provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry arrives to view the Murals of Gratitude exhibition in Vancouver, on Friday, July 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Death threats mount against Dr. Bonnie Henry, sparking condemnation from Horgan, Dix

Henry has become a staple on televisions in homes across British Columbia since January 2020

Bryan Adams with his mom, Jane Adams Clark, at Lions Gate Hospital. (Bryan Adams)
Bryan Adams gives shout out to North Shore hospital

The singer’s mom was in Lions Gate Hospital for care

Shoppers will be able to get their hands on signed bottles of Ryan Reynolds’ new gin at B.C. liquor stores this summer. (Twitter/Ryan Reynolds)
Ryan Reynold’s Aviation Gin autographed and coming to B.C. stores

This summer 100 bottles will be available to the public for purchase across five B.C. liquor stores

An official investigation will be launched after VPD officers were recorded posing near a dead body at Third Beach on Wednesday morning, Feb. 24. (Screen grab/Zachary Ratcliff)
VIDEO: Vancouver officers under review for allegedly laughing, taking pictures next to dead body

Two officers were caught on video by a local beachgoer Wednesday morning in Stanley Park

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry updates B.C.’s COVID-19 situation at the B.C. legislature. (B.C. government)
‘Stay local’: Dr. Henry shoots down spring break travel for British Columbians

B.C. is reportedly working with other provincial governments to determine March break policies

Most Read