New superbug threatens to make bacteria drug-resistant worldwide

Photo of a scalpel

Brits have caught a deadly virus by traveling to India for plastic surgery. CC by aesop

Instead of souvenirs, Brits looking for discounted nip-and-tucks in India have brought home a new superbug infection that could spread worldwide. A new class of superbug has infected plastic surgery patients in south Asia who have carried it to the U.K., and from there it could spread around the globe. A gene interchangeable with bacteria in the new superbug makes infections resistant to the most powerful antibiotic drugs. Experts say governments should come up with programs to coax more antibiotic research from Big Pharma, which is preoccupied with profitable maladies such as erectile dysfunction.

Drug-resistant superbug gene makes bacteria deadly

Researchers say there are few drugs available to defeat this superbug. Reuters reports that a newly discovered gene — New Delhi metallo-beta-lactamase, or NDM-1 — has been found by researchers in patients in both south Asia and the U.K. Bacteria are altered by the NDM-1 gene to become highly resistant to most antibiotics, including carbapenems, the most powerful class available. Drug experts say the research pipeline has no new antibiotics in progress to suppress it. Timothy Walsh, who led the study, told Reuters he fears the new superbug could soon spread across the globe with international travel for cheap cosmetic surgery procedures increasing.

Superbug lives to migrate and mutate

The superbug gene was already circulating widely in India, the researchers said in an article published online Wednesday in the journal Lancet Infectious Diseases. The Associated Press reports that 37 people in the U.K. who had plastic surgery in India or Pakistan and contracted antibiotic-resistant infections have been diagnosed with the superbug gene. Medical researchers in Australia, Canada, the U.S., the Netherlands and Sweden have also detected the superbug gene. The authors of the Lancet article said the gene is detected on DNA structures called plasmids that are copied and passed on with ease between bacteria, leading them to declare that the superbug has “an alarming potential to spread and diversify.”

Money, not superbugs, entice Big Pharma

Superbugs don’t pique the pharmaceutical industry’s interest. Because bacteria adapt so quickly, new antibiotics don’t have the shelf life to be sufficiently lucrative. The Wall Street Journal reports that to ensure they get an adequate return on investment to shareholders for addressing a global health threat, some pharmaceutical companies are looking for government subsidies. Strict research and development demands from official regulators are also blamed for cutting into future earnings. However, some big drug companies are jumping into the antibiotic research pool, including Pfizer and Merck in the U.S., Novartis in Switzerland and GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca in the U.K.

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