Experts warn antibiotic-resistant ‘superbugs’ could be next public health epidemic

The global COVID-19 pandemic has been raging on for months, but some experts warn another health crisis is looming: Antibiotic-resistant bacteria or so-called “superbugs.”

“Antibiotic resistance refers to the way bacteria can become resistant to the antibiotics that are used to treat them, so that makes the infections they cause difficult or impossible to treat,” said Dr. Helen Boucher of Tufts Medical Center and Treasurer of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“We are facing an antibiotic crisis,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor James Collins warned.

He fears antibiotic-resistant superbugs – germs that have developed the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them -- are a problem the country is not equipped to handle.

“I think it truly is one of the top 10 existential threats facing humankind,” Collins said.

“Various estimates are that the number of individuals who could die from a resistant infection on an annual basis could rise to 10 million by 2040 to 2050, which would surpass deaths due to cancer.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are more than 2.8 million drug-resistant infections reported in the U.S. every year. More than 35,000 people die because of those infections annually.

Collins and a team of researchers at MIT are working to expand the arsenal of weapons used to fight superbugs. They have developed a program using artificial intelligence to identify molecules that could make new, effective antibiotics.

“Using [the new program], we were able to discover a host of new antibiotics including one that we call halicin that has remarkable activity against multi drug-resistant pathogens,” Collins said.

“Our goal is to use this AI platform to discover and design seven new classes of antibiotics against seven of the world’s deadly pathogens over the next seven years.”

Boucher said drug-resistant infections have grown significantly in the past 10 years due to antibiotic overuse and misuse. She said some doctors are overprescribing drugs and some patients are not taking them properly.

“We shouldn’t ask for antibiotics for things like colds which are caused by viruses and for which antibiotics won’t help,” Boucher said. “We should really take them, these precious medicines, exactly as prescribed so we can do our part to prevent more resistance.”

Boucher said the time to act is now.

“Things like surgery, organ transplants, care of very tiny babies and chemotherapy for cancer all rely on antibiotic support to get patients through those therapies,” Boucher said. “If we don’t act now and really work on fixing this, the very healthcare system that we love and rely on could be in jeopardy.”

Data collected from the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy classifies antibiotic usage in Massachusetts as “high” with more than 700 prescriptions issued for every 1,000 people.

West Virginia has the highest usage at 1,228 prescriptions per 1,000 people.

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