11 Jun 2021

Impacts of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic on travel-related gut microbiome and resistome changes

Our gut microbes are sensitive to environmental changes and exposures. Travel act as a key setting in which such changes are eager to happen.

In the context of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Hein Min Tun and PhD student Ye Peng have published in the Journal of Travel Medicine a study informing the changes in our microbiomes related to pandemic control measures implemented for travelling since the start of the outbreak in late 2019.

Collateral effects of the pandemic control measures

Over a year into the pandemic, people around the world are facing “a devastating new normal”. The comprehensive implementation of consistent pandemic control measures such as physical distancing, universal masking, and extensive hygiene are key in the global fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We don’t know yet what will be the collateral damages of these measures. Apparently, they limit us to expose ourselves to diverse microbes from the environment, consequently affect our microbiome, that are implicated in health and diseases.”

According to the research team: “long-term impacts should be monitored as these measures have been widely practiced, and we probably still need them until the end of the pandemic or perhaps until a reasonable global vaccination coverage is achieved”.

Maintaining our normal gut microbiome in the midst of a pandemic

“To fully avoid potential negative consequences from control measures, we need the population to get largely vaccinated.”

This new paper is stemming from a previous study about the role of gut microbiota in the acquisition of antimicrobial resistant bacteria during international travels also published in the Journal of Travel Medicine in March 2021.

In this previous paper, the Tun Lab reported lower richness of Actinobacteria, a bacterial phylum associated with the natural environment, predisposed travellers to higher risk of acquiring antibiotic-resistant bacteria during international travel. In this study, the team observed reduced Actinobacteria richness, along with increased resistance genes during the first wave of the pandemic.

“We need to be cautious that our guts may be more susceptible to drug-resistant bacteria during the pandemic […] But at the same time, we can also use other ways to maintain our normal gut microbiome, such as exposing to natural environments with safety measures, eating fibre-rich diets, and avoiding excessive use of microbiome disruptive products.”

Indeed, although changes are observed in gut microbiome, long-term consequences of the changes are not yet fully understood and both researchers underline that: “at this moment, we should prioritize implementing pandemic control measures over considering possible negative collateral impacts because the most important is fighting against this pandemic.”

Towards extended research on the topic

This study showed the first scientific evidence of gut microbiota changes related to pandemic control measures.

Nevertheless, the research team stresses the need for more observational evidences in a larger population. According to Dr Tun and PhD student Ye Peng, a longitudinal follow-up study on health consequences and microbiome changes is also worthy of investigation.

“We need more research. Of course, we will pursue those investigations.”

>>> Gut microbiome and resistome changes during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in comparison with pre-pandemic travel-related changes

To receive the latest HKU-Pasteur Research Pole research news and upcoming events,  follow us on Facebook & Instagram and subscribe to our Newsletter!