COVID-19 disrupts gut bacteria, especially when paired with antibiotics

Microorganisms – billions of bacteria, viruses, molds, and other microscopic particles live in us, on us, and among us. Collectively, they are called a “microbiome.” The microbiome is essential to human health. It is active in metabolism, the immune system, and the central nervous system. Some of the microorganisms are beneficial. Some are not. Our bodies try to keep the virtually countless varieties of the microorganisms in numbers that enhance health.

Things happen, though, that interfere with that vulnerable balance of microorganisms, and which wreak havoc on the body – things like COVID-19. That imbalance is called dysbiosis. Add antibiotics and the imbalance escalates, a team of scientists at Rutgers University in New Jersey reports. This discovery may lead to the development of probiotic supplements to correct gut imbalances in future patients, the scientists said.

Researchers published the initial results of an ongoing study examining the microbiomes of COVID patients and volunteers at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Jersey. The study started in May 2020. It was designed to assess the microbiome because many patients with COVID-19 complained of gastrointestinal issues during both the acute phases of illness and while recovering. Early in the pandemic, before vaccines and antiviral treatments, COVID-19 patients were often treated with antibiotics to prevent possible secondary infections.

“We wanted to gain a deeper understanding by looking at specimens that would give us an indication about the state of the gut microbiome in people,” says Martin Blaser, the Henry Rutgers Chair of the Human Microbiome at Rutgers University, in a statement. “What we found was that, while there were differences between people who had COVID-19 and those who did not, the biggest differences were seen in those who had received antibiotics.”

The scientists analyzed populations of microorganisms in stool samples from 60 subjects. The study group consisted of 20 COVID-19 patients, 20 healthy donors and 20 COVID-19-recovered subjects. They found major differences in the numbers of 55 different species of bacteria when comparing the microbiomes of infected patients with the healthy and recovered patients.

The Rutgers scientists continue testing and tracking the microbiomes of patients in the study for the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the microbiomes of individuals.

The study is published in Molecular Biomedicine.

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