A team led by the economist Jim O’Neill has just published their findings into a review of the resistance to antibiotics by bacteria. The review was ordered by David Cameron.
The research concluded that as things stand the growing inefficacy of antibiotics would result in as many as ten million extra deaths a year throughout the world by 2050 and an economic loss from these deaths of £64 trillion over the period (or as much as £128 trillion if additional healthcare costs are added in).
Ominously O’Neill has consulted with Lord Stern, the global warming religionist, and likens the situation with antibiotic resistance to that of the manmade global warming mania:
“Mr O’Neill said he had consulted closely with Lord Stern, the President of the Royal Academy who carried out a landmark investigation into the threat from climate change for Tony Blair, about parallels between the two threats and possible responses.
“But he added that, despite the vastly higher public profile of climate change in comparison with drug resistance, there is greater consensus about the danger to humanity from the latter.
“It feels to me, from the scientific knowledge, that there is more certainty about this being a problem,” he said.
“Now I’m somebody that is very sympathetic to the climate change case … but, with the kind of debate that goes on and data, it feels to me that there is more certainty about this becoming a problem over a reasonably short time period.
“He added: “In some ways to try and solve is a little bit like climate change, because we are talking about the problem getting a lot bigger in the future than it is today and what we are presuming … that the cost of stopping the problem is significantly lower than the cost of not stopping it.”
He goes on to say that recommendations will be made next year as to what might be done to save us from this doomsday through international agreement on action, action which you can bet will be to reduce the use of antibiotics. It is also likely to result in yet more demands for Aid to the developing world because “ The inquiry’s initial estimates suggest that while the crisis will affect rich and poor countries alike the developing world will bear the brunt.”
O’Neill is correct in likening this threat to the man-made global warming circus, but not for the reason he believes. Both are problems which are inherently unsolvable through the means of restricting the use of the agents which produce the supposed or real damaging effects.
The rule of Occam’s Razor (don’t multiply entities unnecessarily or keep things simple) is in operation here in it most potent form. In the cases of both global warming and antibiotic resistance the entities can be reduced to one: the size of the population outside of the First World in the first case and the fact that bacteria know no geographical boundaries in the second case.
For the man-made warming problem the reducing emissions solution fails because of the size of the population in the world outside of the First World. There are approximately 7 billion humans alive today. At the most generous estimate only a billion of those live in the First World. If the six billion people who do not live there raised their carbon emissions to only half that of the average of the First World, the amount of carbon in the atmosphere would greatly exceed the levels judged to be dangerous by climate scientists. Moreover, it is most unlikely that the carbon emission levels of the developing world would remain at only half the First World average. Indeed, they may well end up exceeding the first world average as the developing world generally uses dirty fossil fuels without regard to emissions. Nor is there anything the First World can do to prevent them continuing to behave like this. Consequently, the only sensible course of action is to watch and see how things develop and devote resources to ameliorating whatever ill effects may arise if climate change, whether natural or man-made, produces circumstances which threaten human environments.
The idea that bacterial immunity to antibiotics can be meaningfully prevented by restricting their use is different from man-made global warming in that it is an unequivocal fact that it exists. But like man-made global warming the remedy of restricting its use is a pipe dream because all countries would have to agree to such a regime and enforce it.
In many countries, including a good number in Europe, antibiotics do not require a prescription and they can be purchased as easily as a pack of aspirin in Britain. If one country or even a group of first world countries – say, the EU states – were to restrict antibiotic use it would make no difference in anything other than the short run because bacteria know no boundaries. Eventually, bacteria with immunity would take as hosts those whose countries had restricted the use of antibiotics.
The other fly in the ointment is the widespread use of antibiotics in animal husbandry. When animal products from such animals are eaten they will pass on small but significant amounts of antibiotics. That will over time will build antibiotic resistance.
In both the case of restricting direct antibiotics to humans and in their indirect transmission through animal products , there is zero chance of getting global agreement to restrict their use and to take serious action to enforce the restriction. Therefore, it is pointless to try to restrict their use. Therefore, it is at best pointless to discuss such measures and at worst a distraction from what needs to be done.
What should be done? Governments need to initiate a large and perpetual publicly funded programme of research to firstly constantly search for new antibiotics and secondly to examine new approaches to attacking infections, for example, by discovering ways to destroy bacteria by irradiation. If it is left to Big Pharma the research they will undertake will be both insufficient in terms of unearthing new antibiotics and in investigating new approaches, viz:
“Drug-resistant bacteria, viruses and other pathogens are on the rise as the discovery of new medicines has failed to keep pace with the evolution of the bugs.
This is partly because the pharmaceutical industry moved out of antibiotic research en masse over the last decade and a half due to tough regulations and poor returns on investment, though the pattern has started to reverse.”