Superbugs proliferate as big pharma stands by

Published: Thu 23 Jan 2020, 6:07 PM

Last updated: Wed 29 Jan 2020, 1:30 PM

There was a time not so long ago when five days dosage of anything ending with -illin or -cycline was seen as a potent medicinal weapon against the scourge of disease. It was seen as a surefire success and so the legend went, it was now time to get over the antibiotic effects.
Put it in perspective in this third decade of the 21st century. Over 33,000 people died in Europe last year because of superbugs, a new strain of viruses that are resistant to antibiotics. Nothing romantic about them because they are deadly in their potential threat to the human race. That means us. Yet, the world is so blasé about it.
Now, let's take this situation a step further. In 2016, the top 100 companies in Big Pharma pledged to engage in more research on a set of new antibiotics to handle this potential menace. Makes sense. Then, one by one the big boys in the business scuttled their commitment and reneged. Not because there was no headway being made but there just isn't enough profit in antibiotics when there is so much money to be made in lifelong treatments for ailments like diabetes and high blood pressure or cancers where the meds are eaten regularly, even several doses a day. On comparison, antibiotics only run a course of a few days, sometimes as week a year.
As a result, the world is now left with old generation drugs and the superbugs are having a laugh. According to a German study, "Doctors around the world are warning about the regular discovery of new superbugs, and saying that indiscriminate use of 'last resort' antibiotics is threatening a major global health catastrophe."
The fear is escalated by the fact that no one can command the pharma lobby to do something and not renege on this promise. We are already in the throes of a possible flu virus now that is thumbing its nose at medical science.
Two major medical reports this week have underscored the fact that the human race is still vulnerable to a pandemic and also unable to defend itself against the growing superbug population.
As if to prove this inherent weakness in the human armour there has been an outbreak in China of a new strain of pneumonia that is linked directly to the coronavirus family of bugs that are responsible for the SARS type of respiratory diseases. The contagion seems swift and has crossed boundaries with Thailand and Japan also reporting cases ostensibly from affected tourists and business travellers.
At present there seems to be only palliative treatment available. Moreover, there is a growing fear that since the initially affected were workers at a seafood store, this superbug might have been conceived in marine life much like the 2003 SARS epidemic which was also traced to animals.
Even as a global alert is sounded there is some good news in the fact that many affected patients are recovering and since care workers have not been affected, this 'flu' strain may not be communicable person to person. However, with the mass congregations sparked by the January 25 Chinese New Year celebrations, which can be very intense, the virus might well come out of its hiding places and find itself easy targets. And since the genesis was in a store in Wuhan province the frenetic shopping over this week could also act as a spur. There have to be guidelines to prevent a spike.
This new virus has been labelled 2019-nCoV by the World Health Organization and it is being closely studied. And while it may not have the 'legs' to turn into a global epidemic since initial studies show it to be much milder than SARS, every such development only marks how we are always on the verge of being stricken.
As Bill Gates recently stated, the world is not prepared for this sort of an onslaught and what is needed is to get on to a war-footing and prepare for every eventuality. With frontline drug manufacturers having literally shrugged their responsibilities for the bottom line, we are all pretty much exposed.

By Bikram Vohra (Between the Lines)

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