The gut microbiome: an under-recognised contributor to the COVID-19 pandemic?

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The novel coronavirus infection (COVID-19) caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread rapidly across the globe, culminating in major global morbidity and mortality. As such, there has been a rapid escalation in scientific and clinical activity aimed at increasing our comprehension of this virus. This volume of work has led to early insights into risk factors associated with severity of disease, and mechanisms that underpin the virulence and dynamics involved in viral transmission. These insights ultimately may help guide potential therapeutics to reduce the human, economic and social impact of this pandemic. Importantly, the gastrointestinal (GI) tract has emerged as an important organ influencing propensity to, and potentially severity of, COVID-19 infection. Furthermore, the gut microbiome has been linked to a variety of risk factors for COVID-19 infection, and manipulation of the gut microbiome is an attractive potential therapeutic target for a number of diseases. While data profiling the gut microbiome in COVID-19 infection to date are limited, they support the possibility of several routes of interaction between COVID-19, the gut microbiome, angiotensin converting enzyme 2 (ACE-2) expression in the small bowel and colon and gut inflammation. This article will explore the evidence that implicates the gut microbiome as a contributing factor to the pathogenesis, severity and disease course of COVID-19, and speculate about the gut microbiome’s capability as a therapeutic avenue against COVID-19.

Lay summary: It has been noted that certain baseline gut profiles of COVID-19 patients are associated with a more severe disease course, and the gut microbiome impacts the disease course of several contributory risk factors to the severity of COVID-19. A protein called ACE-2, which is found in the small intestine among other sites, is a key receptor for COVID-19 virus entry; there is evidence that the gut microbiome influences ACE-2 receptor expression, and hence may play a role in influencing COVID-19 infectivity and disease severity. Furthermore, the gut microbiome plays a significant role in immune regulation, and hence may be pivotal in influencing the immune response to COVID-19. In terms of understanding COVID-19 treatments, the gut microbiome is known to interact with several drug classes being used to target COVID-19 and should be factored into our understanding of how patients respond to treatment. Importantly, our understanding of the role of the gut microbiome in COVID-19 infection remains in its infancy, but future research may potentially aid our mechanistic understanding of viral infection, and new ways in which we might approach treating it.

Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2; gastrointestinal disease; microbiot

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