We may face a future without cures for potentially lethal bacterial infections. That is according to England’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Sally Davies. She warned last week of the growth of resistance of harmful bacteria to antibiotics.
Calling the problem a “ticking time bomb”, Davies added, “If we don’t take action, then we may all be back in an almost 19th century environment where infections kill us as a result of routine operations.”
Antibiotics are drugs that either stop harmful bacteria growing or kill them outright.
Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was discovered accidentally by Alexander Fleming at St Mary’s Hospital, London in 1928.
He noticed that bacterial growth was being blocked by a bread mould, Penicillium notatum, suggesting that the latter must be producing some anti-bacterial chemical.
Yet nothing was done to develop the potential of this discovery.
Only in the Second World War, with the need to treat infections in injured soldiers, were serious funds made available to isolate the active ingredient.
This culminated in the production of a pure form of penicillin in 1940.
Penicillin stops bacteria making their protective cell walls.
Other antibiotics, such as streptomycin or tetracycline, prevent bacteria from making proteins vital for their growth.
So why are bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics?
This is partly due to the process of natural selection which was discovered by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace in the mid 19th century.
As bacteria come under pressure from the antibiotics used to destroy them, a tiny minority will develop gene mutations that allow them to survive the drug onslaught.
Most worryingly, some bacteria have found ways to become resistant to a broad spectrum of antibiotics, leading to so-called superbugs.
Bacterial resistance is a natural and predictable problem. But its rapid growth since the 1940s is intimately connected to the priorities of capitalist society.
One problem is the inappropriate use of antibiotics.
Amazingly, ten times more antibiotics are used in agriculture than in medicine.
This is a quick-fix to suppress disease in intensively-farmed animals kept in unsanitary conditions, rather than improving those conditions.
But there is a price to pay—bacteria that become resistant in animals can be transferred to humans.
In Davies’ call for enhanced efforts to develop new anti-bacterial drugs she has also acknowledged the current “discovery void” in the pharmaceutical industry.
It is not working hard enough to produce new antibiotics because, apparently, drug companies do not consider antibiotics to be sufficiently profitable.
What kind of society would be willing to sacrifice the future health of humankind for the sake of profit for a few?
The government should be pouring money into such areas of research. Instead it is cutting lab budgets.
Alfred Wallace, besides co-discovering natural selection, was an active socialist. He observed just before his death in 1913, that “Man’s scientific discoveries have outstripped his moral development.”
Unfortunately, as we now face the potential destruction of one of our frontline defences against disease, that sentiment tragically remains as true as ever.
John Parrington lectures in Pharmacology at Oxford University