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COVID-19 Coverage

Growing up during the pandemic: What that means for kids' microbes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Anyone who has parented through COVID has probably wondered how the pandemic might affect their kids long term. Well, now researchers are looking into how the pandemic may have affected children's exposure to microbes that can benefit them, whether they've had COVID or not. NPR's Julie Depenbrock has the story.

JULIE DEPENBROCK, BYLINE: Studies are already underway to try to figure out how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the development of babies and young children. Some researchers are looking specifically at changes to children's microbiomes.

KATHERINE WU: So the microbiome is the collective community of microbes that lives inside and on top of our bodies.

DEPENBROCK: That's Katherine Wu. She has a Ph.D. in microbiology. She's also a staff writer for The Atlantic.

WU: It's kind of amazing to think about. The microbial cells in our persons actually outnumbers the human cells. They are basically everywhere. And they help us do all sorts of things from digestion to calibrating our immune system to even helping our brains develop and function properly.

DEPENBROCK: The first few years of life are pivotal to the formation of our microbiomes. And the pandemic may be changing that important process.

WU: Any disruptions in that sort of sensitive period early on, really in the first three-ish years of a kid's life, it's a pretty crucial period.

DEPENBROCK: But microbiologists don't yet have a full understanding of exactly what can disrupt the formation of a microbiome and of what disruptions matter for future health.

MARIA GLORIA DOMINGUEZ-BELLO: Maria Gloria Dominguez-Bello - I'm a professor of microbiology at Rutgers University.

DEPENBROCK: Dominguez-Bello says it's not just about coming in contact with viruses and bacteria.

DOMINGUEZ-BELLO: We more and more are confirming that things like stress, psychological stress, can affect the microbiome and vice versa.

DEPENBROCK: And Wu says there are any number of things that could affect a child's microbiome.

WU: Could it even be infections from this particular coronavirus? Could it be something about big socioeconomic changes that happened during the pandemic? So many things have changed.

DEPENBROCK: Even if scientists are pretty sure the pandemic has affected microbiome formation, they're a long way from understanding what that'll mean for kids who are growing up in the COVID era.

WU: It's going to be a really tricky thing to answer. But it's probably good that people are paying attention to it because we're still trying to figure out what sort of early life interruptions can impact how the microbes in our bodies really function.

DEPENBROCK: Are changes in microbiome formation since the pandemic started necessarily a bad thing? Wu says that's also going to be tricky to answer.

WU: Scientists don't actually know if some of those behavioral changes - like frequent sanitizing, frequent distancing, all that stuff - they don't know if it had any really calculable impact at all. It could even be a net positive, as some scientists pointed out.

DEPENBROCK: And regardless of what future research shows about how pandemic behavior changes altered microbiomes...

WU: None of this discussion is an indictment of the behavioral changes that people undertook, you know? It was so important to mask. It was so important to reduce the spread of this new coronavirus.

DEPENBROCK: Wu says there's no one perfect way to build a microbiome. And things like personal hygiene and getting outside, which a lot of people prioritized during the pandemic, can only serve to enrich the health of kids in the long term.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Depenbrock. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie Depenbrock
Julie Depenbrock (she/her) is an assistant producer on Morning Edition. Previously, she worked at The Washington Post and on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi Show. Depenbrock holds a master's in journalism with a focus in investigative reporting from the University of Maryland. Before she became a journalist, she was a first grade teacher in Rosebud, South Dakota. Depenbrock double-majored in French and English at Lafayette College. She has a particular interest in covering education, LGBTQ issues and the environment. She loves dogs, hiking, yoga and reading books for work (and pleasure).