According to new research published in the journal Gut, the variety and volume of bacteria in the gut microbiome may influence the severity of COVID-19 as well as the magnitude of the immune system response to the infection.

The researchers wanted to find out whether the gut microbiome might affect the immune system response to COVID-19 infection, as resident microbes are known to influence immune responses.

They obtained blood and stool samples and medical records from 100 hospitalised COVID-19 patients between February and May 2020 and from 78 people without COVID-19 who were taking part in a microbiome study before the pandemic.

The severity of COVID-19 was classified as mild in the absence of x-ray evidence of pneumonia; moderate if pneumonia with fever and respiratory tract symptoms were detected; severe if patients found it very difficult to breathe normally; and critical if they needed mechanical ventilation or experienced organ failure requiring intensive care.

Analysis of stool samples showed that the make-up of the microbiome differed significantly between patients with and without COVID-19, irrespective of whether they had been treated with drugs, including antibiotics.

COVID patients had higher numbers of Ruminococcus gnavusRuminococcus torques and Bacteroides dorei species than people without the infection. They also had far fewer of the species that can influence immune system response, such as Bifidobacterium adolescentisFaecalibacterium prausnitzii and Eubacterium rectale.

Lower numbers of Faecalibacterium prausnitzii and Bifidobacterium bifidum were particularly associated with infection severity after taking account of antibiotic use and patient age.

COVID-19 infection prompts the immune system to produce inflammatory cytokines in response. In some cases, this response can be excessive (known as a ‘cytokine storm’), causing widespread tissue damage, septic shock, and organ failure.

Analysis of the blood samples showed that the microbial imbalance found in the COVID patients was also associated with raised levels of inflammatory cytokines and blood markers of tissue damage. This suggests that the microbiome might influence the immune system response to COVID-19 infection and potentially affect disease severity and outcome, say the researchers.

“In light of reports that a subset of recovered patients with COVID-19 experience persistent symptoms, such as fatigue, dyspnoea [breathlessness] and joint pains, some over 80 days after initial onset of symptoms, we posit that the dysbiotic [imbalanced] gut microbiome could contribute to immune-related health problems post-COVID-19,” they write.

This was an observational study, and as such, can’t establish cause, added to which the gut microbiome varies widely among different populations, so the changes observed in this study may not be applicable to other COVID patients elsewhere.

However, they point to mounting evidence showing that gut microbes are linked to inflammatory diseases within and beyond the gut.

They conclude: “Bolstering of beneficial gut species depleted in COVID-19 could serve as a novel avenue to mitigate severe disease, underscoring the importance of managing patients’ gut microbiota during and after COVID-19.”

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