COVID-19: will bacterial secondary infections become a major cause of death?

Colin Garner ANTRUK announcements, Coronavirus COVID-19, Learn more

A preliminary report of 191 COVID-19 patients hospitalised in Wuhan showed that 28 of those patients (15%) had bacterial secondary infections. 27 of those 28 patients sadly died. This occurred despite the routine administration of antibiotic to all patients in the study. We do not know if the deaths in this group was due to drug-resistant infection, but it is possible. Now, more than ever, we need to invest in developing new antibiotics.

We have seen this pattern before. In the 2009 H1N1 influenza outbreak; up to 55% of deaths were caused by secondary bacterial pneumonia. Patients in hospital settings, particularly those receiving ventilator treatment, are at greater risk of developing a drug-resistant infection. Their immune system is already compromised and unable to fight bacterial infections. This is why proper stewardship of existing antibiotics is of vital importance during outbreaks of infectious diseases, and indeed for many medical procedures across the board.

We must act now

Despite the well-documented global health catastrophe that is antibiotic resistance, or antimicrobial resistance as it is also known, world leaders are not doing enough. They need to ensure that antibiotics are used properly and to invest in the development of new ones. Due to the speed at which bacteria multiply, it is possible for resistance to arise and spread very quickly. This creates ‘multidrug-resistant’ strains, some of which cannot be treated at all using medicines available today.

People with these resistant strains of infection face one day discovering that there is no treatment available. Additionally, people who currently do not have any such infection are put at risk every time they enter a hospital. More than that, though, genes related to resistance in bacteria are being discovered everywhere in the environment, even the ice in the high arctic. We still are not working hard enough to create new drugs to treat this threat that we now know if present and growing with each day that passes. Please support Antibiotic Research UK, and help us to keep not just future generations but indeed our own lives safe.

Key message: antibiotics do not treat viruses such as COVID-19. But they are absolutely crucial for treating bacterial infections. Such infections frequently arise in patients with a viral infection.  As their immune system is weakened by the virus, they cannot fight off the secondary infection by bacteria. This can be particularly associated with the use of ventilators. We must do everything we can to stop the spread of COVID-19 and start to take the very real threat of antibiotic resistance seriously.