The next pandemic could be caused by the excessive use of antibiotics, which can become less effective as bacteria get used to them and develop new defences.
It’s a phenomenon called antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which a new study shows has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the start of the outbreak, tens of thousands patients were prescribed antibiotics even though they didn’t have a confirmed bacterial infection.
That’s because the dry cough associated with coronavirus made it difficult to take saliva samples, while doctors and nurses avoided deep lung swabs in fear of contracting the virus.
The research, published in The Lancet Microbe, analysed nearly 49,000 patients across the UK.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the clinical pipeline of new antimicrobials is dry, as there were only 32 antibiotics in clinical development that address the WHO list of priority pathogens, of which only six were classified as innovative as of 2019.
The cost of AMR to national economies and their health systems is significant as it affects productivity of patients or their caretakers through prolonged hospital stays and the need for more expensive and intensive care, according to the intergovernmental organisation.
“Something needs to be done now because, by the time antimicrobial resistance becomes the next pandemic, it will be too late to catch up,” Damien Hancox, chief executive of SpectrumX Holdings Ltd, told Proactive.
“A government policy shift is needed towards funding and developing, in conjunction with the private sector, alternative treatments where antibiotics will certainly fail.”
Hancox says that developing antibiotics “is a decades-long process because they all have their own specific mode of action against the bacteria they are trying to eradicate, you take a different antibiotic depending on which infection you have”.
Instead, SpectrumX has developed a product range with a positively non-selective mode of action against all bacteria (including antibiotic resistant strains) and viruses, which means that it works on all types of infections.
“In the long term [AMR] is going to cause huge problems, you will have patients being hospitalised with infections and doctors without the tools to treat them… We have in-vitro data showing effectiveness against bacteria which antibiotics are ineffective against,” Hancox added.
AMR is a complex problem that requires a united multisectoral approach, according to the WHO.
Globally, countries committed to the framework set out in the Global Action Plan during the 2015 assembly, which was endorsed by the Governing Bodies of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health.
“To ensure global progress, countries need to ensure costing and implementation of national action plans across sectors to ensure sustainable progress,” said the WHO.
“Greater innovation and investment is required in operational research, and in research and development of new antimicrobial medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic tools.”