The world responded as one to the threat of the Covid-19 pandemic. Scientists from every related disease-combatting field combined their talent, resources, and knowledge to defeating the virus. It is a heroic effort and humankind is finally gaining ground on that front. Unfortunately, it is not the only battlefront mankind must defend. If it were not for the tools of modern computing, namely AI and bioinformatics, mankind would be no match for this combined onslaught of microbes.
Dubbed “superbugs” by the news media, these antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi are currently responsible for 35,000 deaths and more than 2.8 million infections per year in the U.S. alone. A 2019 CDC report lists 18 antibiotic-resistant bacteria and fungi as current threats ranging from concerning to urgent. Additionally, three superbugs were added to the CDC watchlist meaning they’re seriously dangerous, but not yet widespread in the U.S.
In Canada, a report predicts that “powerful superbugs increasingly resistant to antibiotics will wreak havoc in Canada, killing nearly 400,000 Canadians by 2050.” That report was commissioned by the Public Health Agency of Canada.
While the numbers may vary, the story is the same in every country. In essence this represents a loosely bound form of a different kind of looming pandemic wherein multiple microbes simultaneously present as a worldwide threat.
The scope of the superbugs war
Scarier still, the surge of microbial threats is ongoing. That is why the World Health Organization (WHO) has declared that Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) is one of the top 10 global public health threats facing humanity.
Antimicrobials are a class of medicines that includes antibiotics, antivirals, antifungals and antiparasitics. If alternative medicines are not developed soon, even minor cuts can swiftly become deadly. Surgeries would be fatal more often than not.
The bad news is that “the clinical pipeline of new antimicrobials is dry,” according to the WHO report.
Bottom line, this means that we, meaning all of mankind, currently have no antimicrobials to treat any of the growing number of superbugs. And it’s a situation that will only get worse as antibiotic resistant superbugs can evolve in as little as eleven days:
Mankind’s technology arsenal to the rescue
Fortunately, we do have bioinformatics and AI both of which were highly instrumental in the speedy development of COVID vaccines. Researchers also have considerable experience in new drug development techniques and vaccine and treatment platforms and they’re learning more every day.
The scientific community is also on the edge of several profoundly serious technological breakthroughs to aid in the fight. For example, the means to predict which pathogens will become superbugs next. The advance warning would provide a much-needed advantage in finding treatments before the threat strikes.
“The genetic prediction of phenotypic antibiotic resistance based on analysis of whole genome sequencing (WGS) data is becoming increasingly feasible, and it is already accessible to clinical microbiology laboratories,” writes Oliver Schacht in his post in European Pharmaceutical Manufacturer.
“Available databases combine broad resistance profiles with high-quality genetic information to enable accurate pathogen identification and antibiotic resistance detection. Automated interpretive tools which had been lacking or were limited in analysis capability in the past are becoming more refined.”
Indeed, “recent studies find that next-generation sequencing (NGS) capable of identifying pathogens correctly with 100% sensitivity and specificity and antibiotic resistance markers with >95% sensitivity and >99% specificity,” Schacht reported. If you want to read more on this topic, check out this study.
War stories and heroes
Much like the worldwide effort to combat Covid-19, winning the battle on these multiple fronts will call for global collaboration and a broadening of technical prowess.
“Tackling the challenge of drug-resistant superbugs requires a multi-pronged approach. Developing new antibiotics and maintaining local databases of pathogen information and AMR markers will not be enough,” wrote Schacht.
Diagnostic testing will have to improve and get faster too.
“Bioinformatics platforms are evolving to offer data analysis and cloud-based sharing capabilities that can support healthcare professionals working rapidly to identify individual cases of AMR and broader threats to public health,” Schacht said.
Fortunately, all of this is possible. In the end there will be heroes and war stories to share about how these converging threats were defeated. And we’ll need them in the future when there will be new infection threats, new battles, and new pandemics to fight.
Hope springs eternal, but science wins the day.