Superbugs, Shkreli Drama and a Post-Antibiotic World

Ratan Varghese - 2A Electrical
Posted on: January 28, 2017

Recently, a study revealed that a colistin-resistant strain of E. coli has started appearing in China. It was being used on farm animals to speed up their growth. The Chinese government has started banning the use of colistin on farm animals: this ban will be effective in April. However, colistin treatments for humans are be on the rise in China and elsewhere to help deal with bacteria resistant to other, more commonly used antibiotics.

This is a small part of a distressingly large problem. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also called “superbugs”, are becoming increasingly common. It is inevitable that this would occur: as weak, antibiotic-susceptible bacteria are killed off, superbugs survive and spread their antibiotic-resistant genes. However our society is giving evolution a big helping hand. Giving patients doses of antibiotics that are too low to eradicate bacteria gives those bacteria a great opportunity to become resistant. Fish farms and factory farms feed antibiotics to animals raised for meat, but this allows bacteria to develop immunity and lethally infect humans in the future.

The cost of developing antibiotics is rising, and pharmaceutical corporations have been happy to pass on the costs to the rest of society. Their main source of funds for researching future drugs is the income from drugs currently sold on the market. The billions of dollars going into developing new drugs is coming from the most vulnerable sectors of our society. While generic drug companies can manufacture medicines at ridiculously low prices, that doesn’t solve the problem of how these antibiotics will be developed.

The face of greed in Big Pharma is of course the stalker and living internet meme Martin Shkreli. His 2015 decision to raise the price of Daraprim by 5000 percent overnight continues to haunt him. Earlier this month, some spirited protesters actually walked up to him, threw dog poop in his face and recorded the affair. Meanwhile a pharmaceutical trade group started releasing television ads admonishing Shkreli, claiming that the rest of the industry had a stronger moral fibre. Shkreli, being more offended by hypocrisy than feces, quickly whipped up a website which lists all sorts of price-gouging and life-threatening behaviour by drug companies. “Don’t you dare point your finger at me for the pharmaceutical industry’s troubles. It turns out we’ve all made some unpopular moves.” Shkreli says on his site.

It is possible that human research efforts will one day fail to keep pace with bacterial evolution. Such a world would be horrifying to live in. In the eras before antibiotics, even simple injuries such as scrapes, insect bites, skin infections could be lethal. Getting a tattoo could be a death sentence and an ear infection could leave you deaf. Lots of modern medical procedures such as implanting devices, Caesarian sections, kidney dialysis, and surgery in general would have high risk of infection if not for antibiotics. Treatments that involve suppressing the immune system would also become far more risky: this rules out transplants & chemotherapy. Meat of all kinds would be much more expensive: animals in factory farms live in extremely unhygienic conditions. Changing farming practices to reduce antibiotic use could be expensive for consumers and even more expensive for farmers.

Currently obscure treatments could return to the mainstream, such as bacteriophages (viruses that infect bacteria). Phage therapy was primarily used by the Soviet Union. During the Cold War, the Soviets had no access to antibiotics and the Western world had no access to phage research. It has remained something of a Russian oddity, as the phages, like the antibiotics they compete with, have a hard time adapting to the ever-shifting bacterial threat. A post-antibiotic world could be on the horizon, and while surviving may be possible, it could be a major ordeal.

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