Antimicrobial resistance could get worse during the coronavirus pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic is currently coinciding with the flu season and several states and areas of the world are experiencing upticks in new cases. While hospitals have some experience with COVID to go on, some experts are concerned that how doctors are administering antibiotics during the COVID-19 crisis could potentially make the fight against antimicrobial resistance harder. Data from early in the pandemic suggests that the majority of COVID patients are given antibiotics when potentially less than a tenth of them needed it. That could spell disaster if the trend continues.

What is antimicrobial resistance?

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when microbes are no longer affected by antibiotics. Doctors can run out of options if a patient comes in with a bacterial infection that is resistant to all available antibiotics.

Part of the issue with AMR is that we are running out of antibiotics that can work against bacteria and other microbes that have developed resistance. Think about it as evolution on a fast track. At first, the antibiotics may kill all or most of the microbes present in a population. But if a few can tolerate the antibiotic and live on, that can allow it to grow into a resistant population that won’t be affected by the antibiotic in the future.

If that strain of the microbe persists, it could become the dominant form that is passed around and infect people. And when those people land in the hospital, doctors may not be able to effectively treat them and they may die from their infections.

The “superbug” crisis has been building for a long time. Increasing resistance is also in part due to antibiotics being heavily used in certain types of agricultural and livestock raising practices. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a report in 2016 that estimated “at least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in the United States are unnecessary.” In 2019, the World Health Organization estimated that by 2050 AMR could cause 10 million deaths a year.

Without antibiotics that we can count on, we could go back to dying from infected cuts and surgeries will be much more dangerous. “We take antibiotics for granted,” says Steffanie Strathdee, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, to Changing America. “We really are entering an era where a simple surgery like C-section or hip or knee replacement can end up an infection that’s untreatable.”

AMR could become a more urgent crisis than COVID-19. “I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say it’s the biggest human health threat, bar none. Covid is not anywhere near the potential impact of AMR,” says Paul De Barro, who is the biosecurity research director at Australia’s national science agency, the CSIRO, to The Guardian. “We would go back into the dark ages of health.”


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