Antibiotic-resistant bacteria found in soil across Scotland: study

What’s happening? Scientists have found bacteria resistant to antibiotics, including last-resort drugs like vancomycin, ubiquitously present in soils across Scotland, even in relatively pristine environments. This resistance is concerning as the bacteria could transfer to humans, potentially reducing the effectiveness of antibiotics. The study analysed soil samples from the National Soils Archive of Scotland and provides a baseline for monitoring the spread of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in the environment over time. The researchers are exploring alternatives to prescribing antibiotics and ways to reduce AMR entering the environment. (The National) 

Why does this matter? The study’s discovery of these organisms even in remote locations is worrisome because the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is one of the most urgent public health threats facing human society today. According to a 2022 Lancet study, AMR contributed to nearly 5 million deaths worldwide in 2019 and was directly responsible for more than a quarter of those deaths. It has been estimated that 10 million people could die due to AMR every year by 2050. The World Bank warns that AMR could lead to an additional $1tn in annual healthcare costs by that date and cause GDP losses ranging from $1tn to $3.4tn annually by 2030. 

Vulnerable countries – AMR impacts are most acute in low or middle-income countries, particularly those most vulnerable to climate change. Drug-resistant instances of enteric fever – otherwise known as typhoid – have risen in the 75 countries it is endemic since 1990. For example, Pakistan, a country vulnerable to climate change-exacerbated flooding, suffers from extremely high enteric fever AMR levels. Overuse of antibiotics in the country exacerbates the problem – health experts estimate that 70% of antibiotics are used unnecessarily, accelerating the rate of antibiotic resistance and rendering AMR the third-leading cause of death in Pakistan. 

Heat and AMR link – High temperatures, increased frequency of flooding, and microplastic pollution are all seen as responsible for increased AMR rates. Global heating is “intimately linked” to AMR as higher temperatures speed up bacteria growth and gene transfer between microbes, according to a paper published in the National Library of Medicine. Consequently, AMR rates could accelerate as global temperatures increase. 

Renewed focus – Global attention on the issue has risen in recent months. A surge in funding has been pledged towards the fight against AMR, including £130m ($165.1m) from the UK government and pharmaceutical firm GSK ahead of a conference of ministers and health experts held on 16 May in London. The funding will not be used to develop new antibiotics but to improve access to existing drugs in lower-income countries. A UN conference on AMR resistance is scheduled for September, which may bring further funding commitments and new policy initiatives. On 17 May, the World Health Organization also updated its list of drug-resistant bacteria most threatening to human health. 

Next gen antibiotics – Alongside increased funding and political attention, a new generation of antibiotics is being developed to tackle the rise of superbugs. In April, the EU approved a new antibiotic treating pneumonia and urinary tract infections. Research efforts are also intensifying. In February, scientists revealed the discovery of a new drug candidate called cresomycin that combats a range of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including E-coli in non-human tests. Hopes that under-researched marine fungi may contain an “untapped reservoir of chemical diversity” for future biopharmaceuticals provide further optimism. Financial incentives channeled towards the pharmaceutical sector could also pave the way for accelerated antibiotic drug development. 

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