The Threat of Antimicrobial Resistance

There’s an interesting new The Atlantic article about antimicrobial resistance, a term encompassing antibiotic resistance (bacteria being resistant to antibiotics) and meaning the ability of microbes to resist previous treatments used on them. The article is sponsored by the Pfizer corporation, which has unfortunately decided to stop its research into Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s after receiving a generous tax cut by plutocratic Republicans. The article does contain at least one obvious grammatical error, however: “Though AMR is a natural process, it has been expedited by human practices related the administration of antibiotics.” It’s pretty easy to see that it should be “related to the administration of antibiotics” instead, but apparently that basic error was missed, even as Pfizer reports annual net profits of over $7 billion.

Maybe Pfizer and The Atlantic thought that few people would be reading the article anyway, diminishing the amount of effort expended into it. The people who do read the article, maybe they’re expected to simply be appreciative that The Atlantic and Pfizer are actually focusing on an issue important to the common good. Maybe appreciative enough to overlook the basic English error in the article, an error that inevitably prompts closer examination over the listed statistics instead of the actual potential threat of the antimicrobial resistance problem. It’s better than using resources for diverting attention from the massive upwards redistribution of income and lobbying Congress though, right?

The article does mention important truths, however, such as how 23,000 Americans die due to antimicrobial resistance every year, and also how the economic costs of antibiotic resistance are estimated at $55 billion per year. It mentions carbapenems, which are a class of antibiotics used to treat a variety of severe infectious diseases, and how those antibiotics are now ineffective at treating about half of pneumonia cases in some countries. Beyond that, the article does do a fairly adequate job covering antimicrobial resistance in general, at least compared to lots of other media outlets anyway.

There is a substantial amount of importance that the Pfizer-sponsored content does fail to cover, however. As antibiotic resistance is among the most important issues of the twenty-first century, there are facts and new research that should be receiving more attention than they have been.

First of all, the World Health Organization has warned of the possibility that almost all antibiotics will be ineffective by 2050, which the organization notes could cost tens of trillions of dollars worth of damage and 10 million lost lives every year. The group Project Censored covers the most censored stories of a given year, and their latest report has their sixth most censored story titled as Antibiotic Resistant “Superbugs” Threaten Health and Foundations of Modern Medicine. Yes, the foundations of modern medicine are being threatened, but as Project Censored’s media analysis notes, this rarely receives much attention.

Additionally, there is scientific research proving that bacteria can acquire antibiotic resistance from other bacteria. This means that the spread of antibiotic resistance could happen quite quickly, and that potentially makes the problem even worse than previously estimated.

There are guidelines that should be followed now, of course. One example is to avoid the use of important new antimicrobials in food production, as the misuse of antibiotics in agriculture has already had a substantially negative effect.

There is also encouraging (albeit still suboptimal) research on antimicrobial resistance being done already. This ranges from the use of nanoparticles to “supercharging” older antibiotics, so there are some beneficial developments.

Beyond that, there needs to be a significant research expenditure into combating the antimicrobial resistance problem. There are literally trillions of dollars sitting idle in offshore tax havens, and that’s as the world needs that money to be used productively to prevent society from being totally burned up. The U.S. – world’s richest country – could be a leader in this area, with large amounts of money plausibly coming from the few hundred billion dollars possible to gain every year through establishing a financial transactions tax and/or eliminating drug patent monopolies. There are other routes to obtain the billions of dollars necessary to invest in the research, but there is plenty of money there – if the public uses their power to tap into it.