Public health and infectious disease experts were alarmed by the first superbug incident seen in the United States. Last week, it was reported that a 49 year old woman had been infected with a bacterial strain resistant to antibiotics. Defense Department researchers identified the bacteria as a strain of E. coli carrying the mcr-1 gene, well known among microbiologists around the world. Mcr-1 allows bacteria to withstand even the most potent antibiotics, including colistin, a “last-resort” antibiotic used against dangerous superbugs. According to NBC News, the CDC and health officials are working to track down anyone who had come into contact with the infected woman in order to find out how and where she contracted the bacteria.
Without taking so-called superbugs into consideration, each year more than two million people are infected with bacteria that are drug-resistant, and about 23,000 die from their infections. Add a possible superbug epidemic to the mix, and those numbers could easily increase over the next few years. According to the Washington Post, though, experts say that there is no need to panic yet. However, experts are worried in the long run that the mcr-1 gene can spread to other bacteria, which could ultimately cause a slew of untreatable infections.
The Washington Post talked with Yohei Doi, an infectious disease doctor at the University of Pittsburgh, about the discovery of this superbug. When asked how worried the public should be, he replied “[w]hile certainly concerning and something to keep a close eye on from a public health point of view, there is no evidence that this is a widespread problem at this time. In addition, this particular E. coli strain is sensitive to several other more commonly used antibiotics such as carbapenems. Even in the rare event that you get sick from this bacteria, there are treatment options available.” Read more insight from Yohei Doi.
So what happens now? Another epidemic could be hitting the US. It might seem logically for the industry to invest in additional R&D to develop the antibiotics of the future. Like most companies, across the industry, profitability is a huge driver in determining where vital investments and research is applied. Right now, antibiotics do not have the cachet or potential profit margins to gain as much attention as expensive specialty treatments. Government, pharma, and research institutions will need to find new and innovate ways to collaborate so that relatively unexciting but vital treatment options are available for generations to come.