MCG study: Bacteria in nose, throat could determine how severe COVID-19 cases will be

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WJBF) — Microorganisms in the nose and throat act as a line of defense, which protects a person against viruses. Researchers at the Medical College of Georgia wanted to know how strong this microbiota is in fighting COVID-19.

“There are millions of these bugs in your nose and mouth,” Dr. Ravindra Kolhe, the Director of Georgia Esoteric & Molecular Laboratory at the Medical College of Georgia, explains. “We all know that, but what role do these bugs play in making that difference?”

The team, led by Dr. Sadanand Fluzele and Dr. Ravindra Kolhe, examined microbiota in 84 people — 27 who were negative for COVID-19, 30 who were positive but had no symptoms and 27 who were positive and had symptoms. They found that those who were not infected with COVID-19 had high amounts of microbiota in their noses and throats. People who were infected and symptomatic had very little microbiota.

“In a normal case, the [microbiota] barrier helps prevent severe infection,” Dr. Sadanand Fulzele, a geriatric researcher at the Medical College of Georgia, explains. “But if that barrier breaks down, then there’s a severe infection.”

“90 percent of the healthy individuals had very good amounts of microbiota,” Kolhe adds. “The difference was pretty significant between them and the individuals who were COVID positive and had symptoms.”

It is still unclear why there are differences in microbiota between the groups. Fulzele and Kolhe suggest there are two possibilities.

“The first may be that the COVID-19 infection itself causes an alteration in the amount of microbiota,” Fulzele explains. “The second reason may be that those with low microbiota are more susceptible to COVID-19.”

Fulzele and Kolhe hope the findings of this study will help them determine who is most likely to develop a moderate to severe case of COVID-19.

“If we know that, then maybe we can start treatments early, reduce the hospitalizations and save lives,” Fulzele says.

The findings could also help researchers develop new treatments for the virus, including a nasal spray. Similar to probiotics that are used to improve gut health, Fulzele says microbiota could potentially be sprayed into the nose. This could help treat infected patients and be used to prevent others from getting infected in the first place.

“COVID is not going anywhere,” Kolhe says. “We have to come up with multiple situations where we can increase our protection. We are getting vaccinated. We are wearing masks. Is there a way we can increase our nasopharyngeal health?”

The study is in its early stages. The team hopes to test more participants. They also plan on expanding the study to learn if the amount of microbiota changes if a person is vaccinated or infected with a variant of COVID-19.

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