First US antibiotic-resistant superbug prompts global response at G7

27 May 2016

It was more a case of when, not if, the first case of a superbug resistant to all available antibiotics would be confirmed in the US, and now global leaders at the G7 are being urged to act, or face a nightmare scenario.

The discovery of a superbug resistant to all forms of known antibiotic will be unsurprising to those who have been following leading researchers, who have warned of a potential doomsday scenario of us entering a post-antibiotic age where even the most common infections are untreatable.

Now, US health officials have confirmed that the country has its first confirmed case of a superbug resistant to every antibiotic – including colistin, our last-resort antibiotic.

A patient was admitted to a hospital in Pennsylvania with a urinary tract infection and, perhaps most importantly, had not travelled outside the country in the past five months, ruling out her picking up a superbug from another country.

A detailed analysis was conducted on the strain and, from findings published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy, the birth of this superbug was found to have occurred following its own infection with a minute piece of DNA referred to as a plasmid.

Dawning of a ‘truly pan-drug-resistant bacteria’

It was from this strain’s infection that the gene mcr-1 was passed on, thereby making it resistant to the colistin antibiotic.

Describing this as the dawning of a “truly pan-drug-resistant bacteria”, the research team will now be closely analysing any future cases within the US to determine how patient zero was infected, and whether it does indeed have the potential to spread globally.

Given its severity, the meeting of seven of the world’s largest industrial powers at G7 will now devote a considerable amount of discussions towards promoting the idea of greater investment in new antibiotic research.

Could damage world economy by $100trn

Leading the charge is UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who said at a news conference at the summit in Japan: “In too many cases antibiotics have stopped working.

“That means people are dying of simple infections or conditions like TB (tuberculosis), tetanus, sepsis, infections that should not mean a death sentence.”

He then went on to quantify the potential damage done by entering a post-antibiotic age by saying: “If we do nothing about this there will be a cumulative hit to the world economy of $100trn and it is potentially the end of modern medicine as we know it.”

His words come following a scientific review commissioned by the UK government, which has put forward the idea of creating an award of up to $1.5bn for any new successful antibiotic candidate brought to market.

Despite pharmaceutical giants cutting back antibiotic development research in the face of focusing on more profitable diseases lacking any one cure, 83 of the largest companies have signed a declaration asking for support from government to develop new antibiotic strains.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic