preventing future pandemics with hand santising

COVID-19: a glimpse into our future?

Gemma King Coronavirus COVID-19, Research, Treatments

The year is 2051. More than 10 million people have died from antibiotic-resistant infections this year. People are asking why we didn’t do more to protect our precious antibiotics. Why are people dying from what were previously ‘minor’ infections? How did such a devastating pandemic come out of nowhere like this?

The truth is that the above situation could happen – but it certainly won’t be a surprise. That figure – 10 million people lost each year – is a prediction shared by the World Health Organisation, but originally modelled as early as 2014 in a UK Government Review. That is long before anyone had heard of COVID-19 or lockdown restrictions.

The Office for National Statistics has published a stark look at the impact COVID has had on our lives in the past year. We explore whether the report (Coronavirus: a year like no other) gives us a glimpse into an uncomfortable future – one we may soon face if we don’t start preventing future pandemics now and work to save our antibiotics.

What the report shows

The report highlights several significant statistics, starting with:

COVID-19 is the underlying cause of more deaths in one year than any other ‘infectious and parasitic disease’ (according to the World Health Organisation’s definition in International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems) has been in over a century.

It is important to note that pneumonia and influenza are both considered to be respiratory diseases and therefore are not counted in the same category.

The report also shares a graph, which shows the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in just a short period of time. But look a little closer, and it shows something else of interest.

Between 1940 and 1950 there was a small peak in deaths – the last such peak to occur for the next 60 years. That was the last time we saw more than 10,000 deaths from infectious and parasitic diseases in a single year (until 2020). And it’s no coincidence that it was around that time that antibiotics first became available to the general public.

So what does that mean?

Well, it could be an indication of how things will look if our antibiotics ever stop working. And that’s exactly what is happening.

The human cost

We only have to look back to 2007 to see how a peak of 8,200 deaths due to infectious and parasitic diseases occurred at the same time as an outbreak of Clostridium difficile . C. diff is a nasty bug that often occurs in people who are already poorly and can be tricky to treat.

That 8,200 is not just a number on a graph, or a peak on a trend line. As COVID-19 has shown us, within all of those statistics are the stories of thousands of individual people and their loved ones.

That is why part of Antibiotic Research UK’s work involves supporting people who are affected by resistant infections, but also telling their stories. Antibiotic-resistant infections can affect anyone on earth, and they do. These personal stories help to highlight the toll these infections take.

What does this mean for the future?

Ultimately, what this means is that all of the following things may once again carry the risk of death:

  • Simple dental work
  • Childbirth
  • Surgery
  • Cancer chemotherapy and radiotherapy
  • Minor injuries – cuts and scrapes
  • Skin infections
  • Having a genetic disease such as cystic fibrosis

Economic impact of a pandemic

If we look at the impact of COVID-19 as a modern-day example of what may one day happen if our antibiotics are not preserved, what else can we glean from the ONS report?

The negative impact of this pandemic is more severe than the 2008 economic downturn in many ways, two in particular:

  • There was a greater decrease in job vacancies than in 2008/2009
  • Debt as a percentage of the economy is higher than it was in the 1960s

In 2020, nearly 300,00 people were admitted to hospital with COVID-19, and the pandemic cost the UK government £300 billion.

These stats are alarming, and so far we haven’t seen those kinds of numbers of antibiotic-resistant infections in the UK. But if the WHO’s prediction is accurate, cases could increase drastically. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has 14 types of bacteria classified as serious or urgent threats. Here in the UK, just one of those types of bacteria, E. coli, hospitalised 14,000 people and cost the NHS an estimated £14,346,400 in 2012.

How do we fix this?

New antibiotics

There are ongoing efforts to develop new antibiotics, but these cost billions of pounds and can take years, and when they are used it is likely that resistance will arise within a few short years. That and the fact that they are so effective when they do work means that they are not taken for very long. Therefore the companies that develop these medicines do not have much of a chance to earn their money back before the drug is no longer required.

New non-antibiotic treatments and vaccines

There are also other ways to kill bacteria or treat the diseases they cause, such as the non-antibiotic treatment we are investigating in our DIAMOND trial. This will allow us to keep our antibiotics for those who really need them. There are vaccines for some bacterial diseases, too. You can find out more about bacterial vaccines, as well as how mRNA vaccines first used for COVID-19 might be repurposed for this cause. This is a really key step in preventing future pandemics and preserving our current treatments.

Global action

But, preventing future pandemics is a global problem requiring a global solution, and so far the world is not doing enough. 10 million people dying from antibiotic-resistant infections every year is nearly four times as many people as have died of COVID-19 (2.75 million) at the time of writing. We need global action, such as restricting the use of antibiotics, preventing the misuse of antibiotics and incentives to develop new ones.

Professor Colin Garner, Chief Executive of Antibiotic Research UK, says: “This pandemic, these statistics and the WHO’s stark prediction of 10 million deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections every year by 2050 are the wake-up call our charity has been calling for. Now is the time to take action – if everyone who reads this takes one action, we could start to turn the tide on what will otherwise likely be the next pandemic.”

Individual action

Preventing future pandemics starts with you! If you want to take action, there are a number of ways you can do so. One is to educate yourself and others on how to prevent antibiotic resistance, and the common myths about it. Alternatively (or as well!) you can fundraise for us, or make a donation, so that we can continue to invest into research and education that could be the next breakthrough. You can also write to your MP and let them know it’s a cause their constituents care about.

Further reading