WATCH: Drug-resistant superbugs are a slow-moving pandemic

Scientists at McMaster are warning that while the world’s attention is focused on COVID-19, another pandemic — antimicrobial resistance (AMR) — is of grave concern.

“AMR is a pandemic that has been going on for a very long time. Essentially, when we started to use antibiotics, we started to see resistance to them,” says Lori Burrows, a professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences and a researcher with the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

“The pandemic has raised people’s awareness about infectious diseases but we’ve also become a bit complacent.  It has made us aware that microbes are very powerful and if we don’t have effective treatments, we’re in big trouble,” she says.

By some estimates, AMR is predicted to kill 10 million people by 2050, surpassing those who will die of cancer.

Scientists worldwide have cautioned the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased use of antibiotics, which has exacerbated the superbug crisis.  Burrows explains that because COVID-19 is not a bacterial infection, antibiotics will not work and there are fears doctors over-prescribe the drugs for secondary bacterial infections.

The problem is compounded by the widespread use of disinfectants, some of which can actually increase AMR.

Antibacterial soaps, for example, contain added chemicals that can activate what is known as a microorganism’s efflux pumps.  The pumps force disinfectants out before they cause harm and can increase the ability of the bacteria to fight off antibiotics.

“During this pandemic I have seen lots of images on television of people spraying disinfectant everywhere on the streets from tanker trucks.  And people in their homes using lots of disinfectants: Lysol wipes, alcohol, hand sanitizer.  We need to think about what this will do to antibiotic resistance,” says Burrows.

She suggests using regular hand soap, alcohol-based sanitizers and bleach, which will kill the bacteria instantly before it can mount a response and mutate.

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