Rise of drug-resistant superbugs could make Covid pandemic look ‘minor’, expert warns

Antibiotic misuse and overuse threatens to leave us in a post-antibiotic world. Antibiotics are not only essential for curing illnesses, but also to protect against wound infection — including surgical wounds. Routine, safe surgeries could become life-threatening.

The burden for reducing antibiotic use currently falls overwhelmingly on medical and healthcare workers. Yet the majority of antibiotics used worldwide are used on farmed animals. They are used en masse to prevent (not cure) infection in unsanitary conditions, as well as to promote rapid growth.

Most antibiotics used by humans and animals are excreted, ending up in fertiliser, in our rivers, or in our sewage. In other words, our food and water systems become breeding grounds for antimicrobial resistance. Moreover, the primary mechanism for the spread of antimicrobial resistance is via horizontal gene transfer — the tranfer of genetic material between species, even distantly related ones. Even if antimicrobial resistance evolves first in pathogens affecting animals, those adaptations can be passed on to pathogens affecting humans.

Animal farming is bad for animals, the planet, and poses a risk to the future of medicine. Cutting down the use of antibiotics in farming is likely to decrease animal welfare due to disease, and organic farming dramtically increases the land (and hence ecological) footprint of rearing animals. In the majority of the industrialised world, there’s no “good” way to do animal farming.