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‘The silent pandemic’: A warmer world makes it harder to stop the spread of deadly superbugs

A microbiologist at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology prepares a bacterial colony of the Streptococcus pyogenes strain on a blood agar plate.

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Already recognized as one of the major public health threats facing humanity today, there are fears that global warming will make it more difficult to stop the insidious spread of drug-resistant superbugs.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), which the World Health Organization has termed a “silent pandemic,” is an often overlooked and growing global health crisis.

The UN health agency has already declared AMR as one of the top 10 global threats to human health and says around 1.3 million people die each year directly from resistant pathogens.

This figure is poised to “skyrocket” without urgent action, WHO says, leading to higher health, economic and social costs and pushing more people into poverty, particularly in low-income countries.

Antimicrobials, which include life-saving antibiotics and antivirals, are medications used to prevent and treat infections in humans and animals. Their excessive and abusive use, however, is known to be the main driver of the AMR phenomenon.

AMR occurs when microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites develop the ability to persist or even grow despite the presence of drugs designed to kill them.

People watch as a wildfire rages in a forest in Sikorahi, near Alexandroupoli, northern Greece, August 23, 2023.

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Worse still, research has shown that climate change is exacerbating the AMR crisis in several ways.

“Climate change is inherently important because of what is happening to our planet and the problem is that the more our temperatures rise, the more infectious diseases can be transmitted – and that includes AMR bacteria,” said Tina Joshi, associate professor in molecular microbiology at the British University. University of Plymouth, told CNBC via video conference.

“AMR is known as a silent pandemic. The reason it’s called silent is because no one knows about it – and it’s really sad that no one seems to care,” Joshi said.

A “completely broken” diagnostic pipeline

A report released earlier this year by the United Nations Environment Program, titled “Bracing for Superbugs,” illustrates the role of the climate crisis and other environmental factors in the development, spread and transmission of AMR .

These include higher temperatures associated with the rate of spread of antibiotic resistance genes between microorganisms, the emergence of AMR due to continued disruption from extreme weather events and increased pollution creating conditions favorable to the development of insect resistance.

Scientists said earlier this month that an extraordinary series of global temperature records means 2023 is “virtually certain” to be the hottest year on record. Extreme heat is fueled by the climate crisis, which is making extreme weather events more frequent and intense.

It sort of boils down to the fact that it is not economically viable to invest in antibiotics and their development. And this is something that is shaking up the world of antimicrobials.

Tina Joshi

Associate Professor of Molecular Microbiology at the University of Plymouth

Robb Butler, director of the division of communicable diseases, environment and health at WHO Europe, described AMR as “an extremely urgent global health challenge”.

“This is a huge health burden and costs EU member states alone around 1.5 billion euros ($1.6 billion) per year in health costs but also in lost productivity . So it’s a phenomenal challenge,” Butler told CNBC via Telephone.

Butler said he hoped the upcoming COP28 climate conference in the United Arab Emirates could provide a platform for international policymakers to begin to recognize the link between the climate crisis and AMR. The UAE will host the annual UN climate summit from November 30 to December 12.

“The problem is that, of course, antibiotics or antimicrobials are not very interesting for industry to develop. They are expensive, they are high risk – and we have not seen in the last 20 years develop antimicrobial drugs with sufficiently unique characteristics to avoid resistance.”

“We hear people talking about this ‘silent pandemic,’ but it shouldn’t stay silent. We should make more noise about it,” Butler said.

“One would imagine that the (coronavirus) pandemic could have been a wake-up call, but we are still not paying enough attention to AMR.”

A petri dish commenting on bacterial contamination of table tops at the stand of Polygiene AB, which offers antimicrobial, antibacterial and anti-odor technology, at the Aircraft Interiors Expo in Hamburg, Germany, Wednesday, June 15 2022.

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Butler said perhaps his biggest concern is how to get industry leaders to address AMR at a time when they are fully aware that it might be better to invest in other areas of research and development, such as the production of a highly profitable anti-obesity drug, for example.

“For me, it’s the one that keeps me up at night,” Butler said. “I can think about how society might change in the event of shocks to use antibiotics more carefully so as not to develop antibiotic resistance. But if there is absolutely nothing being planned with innovative features, so we kind of lost,” he added. . “And that really, really concerns me.”

Joshi, from the University of Plymouth, echoed this view, calling the AMR diagnostics pipeline “completely broken” and calling on policymakers to urgently restart this process.

“It’s not lucrative,” she added. “It kind of boils down to the fact that it’s not economically viable to actually invest in antibiotics and their development. And that’s something that’s shaking the antimicrobial world.”

The next pandemic?

Thomas Schinecker, chief executive of Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche, said last month that policymakers risked failing to learn the necessary lessons from the coronavirus pandemic – adding that this could have serious consequences for the AMR health crisis .

“I don’t think we learned the lessons that we should have learned in the last pandemic, and I don’t think we’re any better prepared for the next pandemic,” Schinecker told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Europe” on October 19. .

“I think it’s important that we take these lessons, that we implement what we need to do to prepare, because the next pandemic will come,” he continued.

“One of my concerns is that potentially antibiotic-resistant bacteria could be the cause of this pandemic. With this, we need to focus on preparing for such situations in the future.”

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