As everyone tries to end the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say we are already dealing with another threat of infectious diseases globally.
Antibiotic resistance bacteria do not receive as much attention as SARS-CoV-2, as the diseases, they spread slowly and steadily, rather than taking over the world in a short period of time.
However, bacteria could become a threat similar to that of COVID-19, say the experts.
Worldwide, approximately 700,000 people die from antimicrobial resistance infections each year. The World Health Organization projects that, at the current rate, about 10 million people could die annually from drug-resistant infections by 2050.
Due to the overprescription of antibiotics, their overuse in livestock farming, and other factors, many different types of bacterial infections, including strains of Gonorrhea, tuberculosis, and salmonella have become extremely difficult, sometimes even impossible to treat. This is because the tiny portion of bacteria that survive these antibiotics evolve and reproduce, developing resistance. Worldwide, 230,000 people die each year from antibiotic-resistant tuberculosis alone.
“It’s increasingly likely that that bacterial infection will be very difficult to treat if not untreatable, and untreatable bacterial infections are bad,” said Sarah Fortune, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard University, detailing that they “They kill people.”
Much of the attention and resources that would go into the bacteria threat are currently directed at trying to defeat COVID-19, said Steffanie Strathdee, a professor of medicine at the University of California. In that sense, the coronavirus pandemic may worsen the problem of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
“Unlike COVID-19, which came along suddenly and burst on the scene, the superbug crisis has been simmering along,” he said. “It’s already a pandemic. It’s already a global crisis, and it’s getting worse under COVID.”
Hospitals, the breeding ground for bacteria
The medical community should focus in particular on how infectious diseases spread through hospitals, Tom Frieden, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and CEO of Resolve to Save, told Lives.
“I have absolutely no doubt that in 20 or 40 years, we will look back at healthcare as it was implemented in 2020 and shake our heads in wonder about how they could have let so many infections spread in healthcare facilities,” Frieden said.
In July, the WHO called for the more careful use of antibiotics among COVID-19 patients to help curb the threat of antibiotic resistance. A May review found that among about 2,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients worldwide, 72% received antibiotics, although only 8% had documented bacterial or fungal infections.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed how our “dysfunctional” public health system “has left us vulnerable to slow-spreading, antibiotic-resistant bacteria,” said Lance Price, founding director of the Center for Action Against Resistance. Antibiotics from George Washington University.
What about antibiotics?
Bacteria will gain resistance to new antibiotics over time, so we have to be careful how we use them and keep developing new drugs to tackle the problem, said Sarah Fortune.
However, decades have passed since a new class of antibiotics has been developed. Companies like Achaogen and Aradigm, which focused on creating new ones, have filed for bankruptcy in recent years. Pharmaceutical giants like Novartis and Allergan have abandoned the effort altogether.
According to Fortune, drug makers don’t see as much benefit in developing new antibiotics as they do with other drugs. Many have invested in the development of a new antibiotic and failed and can make more money developing drugs that people take regularly rather than only when they have an infection, he explained.
Companies also cannot charge as much for antibiotics as for other drugs they may develop, and the shelf life of an antibiotic is relatively short, Fortune explained. So if we are going to get new antibiotics, we have to find ways to make companies prioritize their creation, he emphasized.
Viruses vs. Bacteria
Aside from developing new antibiotics, another solution could be a type of virus. They are in a category of viruses called phages that naturally target and kill specific types of bacteria. If the particular phage can be found that kills the bacteria a person is infected with, it could be used to treat the infection.
Phage therapy is about to pass the first clinical trial at the IPATH center at the University of California. Strathdee, who leads the project, has personal experience with this type of treatment.
“What we need is a giant phage library that would be open-source, that could be used to match phages to a specific bacterial infection and used with antibiotics to cure these superbugs,” shared Strathdee.
Addressing the issue also requires international cooperation, added Tom Frieden.
“That means sustained funding for health organizations within the US government, including the CDC. That means full support for the World Health Organization, both in terms of funding and mandate, and that means a better, stronger approach to identifying and fixing the gaps in readiness around the world,” he concluded.