The interplay between environmental exposures and COVID-19 risks in the health of children

Abstract Background An unusual feature of SARS-Cov-2 infection and the COVID-19 pandemic is that children are less severely affected than adults. This is especially paradoxical given the epidemiological links between poor air quality and increased COVID-19 severity in adults and that children are generally more vulnerable than adults to the adverse consequences of air pollution. Objectives To identify gaps in knowledge about the factors that protect children from severe SARS-Cov-2 infection even in the face of air pollution, and to develop a transdisciplinary research strategy to address these gaps. Methods An international group of researchers interested in children’s environmental health was invited to identify knowledge gaps and to develop research questions to close these gaps. Discussion Key research questions identified include: what are the effects of SAR-Cov-2 infection during pregnancy on the developing fetus and child; what is the impact of age at infection and genetic susceptibility on disease severity; why do some children with COVID-19 infection develop toxic shock and Kawasaki-like symptoms; what are the impacts of toxic environmental exposures including poor air quality, chemical and metal exposures on innate immunity, especially in the respiratory epithelium; what is the possible role of a “dirty” environment in conveying protection – an example of the “hygiene hypothesis”; and what are the long term health effects of SARS-Cov-2 infection in early life. Conclusion A concerted research effort by a multidisciplinary team of scientists is needed to understand the links between environmental exposures, especially air pollution and COVID-19. We call for specific research funding to encourage basic and clinical research to understand if/why exposure to environmental factors is associated with more severe disease, why children appear to be protected, and how innate immune responses may be involved. Lessons learned about SARS-Cov-2 infection in our children will help us to understand and reduce disease severity in adults, the opposite of the usual scenario.