Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic could herald a rise in superbugs

Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic could herald a rise in superbugs

OTTAWA — Copious use of hand sanitizer and disinfectant is crucial in the fight against COVID-19, but it could be setting Canada back in the battle against superbugs.

Microbiologists say antimicrobial resistant organisms, or superbugs, are a pandemic on the same scale as COVID-19, though it will play out on a much longer timeline.

Antimicrobial resistance was directly responsible for 5,400 deaths in 2018, according to a recent report by the Council of Canadian Academies.

If nothing is done, by 2050 there could be as many as 140,000 preventable deaths, and Canada’s health-care costs associated with antimicrobial resistance could grow to $8 billion per year.

That’s why some of the images of the COVID-19 pandemic have been so disturbing for Dr. Lori Burrows, a professor of biochemical science at McMaster University.

“I was a little freaked out by watching tanker trucks full of disinfectant being sprayed all over the street in some countries,” she said. ”It seems a little excessive to me.”

Some experts worry even strictly necessary efforts to destroy the novel coronavirus linked to COVID-19 could actually drive some bacteria to become more resistant.

The government was set to release its pan-Canadian action plan to tackle antimicrobial resistance this year.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu was questioned about the plan at the House of Commons health committee in early March, before the COVID-19 pandemic struck Canada full force.

“We’ve been committing to using antimicrobials responsibly,” she told the committee. “As you know, though, right now there is a surge on hand sanitizer, which is not helpful in terms of the work that we’re doing to reduce the use of things that contribute to the growth of antimicrobials.”

Though washing hands with soap or alcohol-based sanitizers has no known effect on superbugs, other types of sanitizers and disinfectants can contribute to bacteria that resist antimicrobials.

The use of drugs during the pandemic could also have an effect, said Dr. Gerry Wright, director of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at McMaster University.

“Any time that we’re facing a rise in infections of the kind that we’re seeing with COVID-19 … we run the risk of bacterial infections at the same time,” Wright said.

Secondary bacterial infections are common in patients with severe upper respiratory symptoms, he said, which lead doctors to prescribe antibiotics. And increased use of antibiotics leads to an increase in antimicrobial resistance.

It’s not clear if antibiotic use in the general public has gone up or down during the pandemic because Canada doesn’t gather real-time data.

It could be that people are less likely to seek out medical care of any kind, but a rise in virtual doctor visits could also lead physicians to prescribe antibiotics without testing for bacterial infections first, said Dr. Andrew Morris, medical director of the Sinai Health System-University Health Network Antimicrobial Stewardship Program.

We won’t know either way until after the pandemic passes, he said.

It does seem that more people are taking unproven medications to fight COVID-19 though, particularly south of the border where President Donald Trump has advocated for the preventative use of some drugs.

“We actually have physicians and patients clamouring for the drug, when we actually have no idea if the drug even helps,” Morris said.

“It’s really set us back, because we’ve been saying for a very long time that antimicrobials should be used when we know that they help. It should not be widely and indiscriminately used.”

Like the novel coronavirus, superbugs know no borders and can travel the globe at incredible speed, leaving Canada vulnerable to the actions of people elsewhere in the world.

To make matters worse, few pharmaceutical companies are investing in new antibiotics because they’re not as profitable as drugs people are prescribed on an ongoing basis.

The experts said Canada’s new plan to fight the problem will need to come with money for increased surveillance, data collection and research if it’s going to make any difference in this second, but potentially just as deadly pandemic.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2020.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

About 50 AUPE members were protesting outside Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre early this morning. (Photo by SUSAN ZIELINSKI/Advocate staff)
UPDATED: Health care workers strike at Red Deer hospital

Some surgeries and ambulatory care clinics postponed around the province

B.C. Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson, B.C. NDP leader John Horgan and B.C. Greens leader Sonia Furstenau. (Black Press Media)
VIDEO: One day until B.C. voters go to the polls in snap election defined by pandemic

NDP Leader John Horgan’s decision to call an election comes more than a year ahead of schedule and during a pandemic

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Every new subscription to the Red Deer Advocate includes a $50 donation to the food bank. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Support the food bank with a subscription to the Red Deer Advocate

The community’s most vulnerable members are always in need of a hand,… Continue reading

The Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre could be affected by cuts to Alberta Health Services announced by the government Tuesday. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
David Marsden: Yes, we know how to do laundry

Union leaders would have us believe there’s something special about their members:… Continue reading

Email letters to editor@interior-news.com
Removing Molly Banister extension makes no sense

Re: “Removing road extension would be ‘terrible,’ says former city manager,” Oct.… Continue reading

jj
NDP is certain to tire of propping up Trudeau’s Liberals

To impose his will on the House of Commons, Prime Minister Justin… Continue reading

Mariah Bell of the United States competes during women’s freestyle program in the International Skating Union Grand Prix of Figure Skating Series Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)
Canadian Keegan Messing earns bronze at Skate America in Vegas, Chen wins gold

Messing earns 266.42 points at Skate America in Las Vegas

In this Oct. 7, 2020 photo, chef Sohla El-Waylly prepares Swedish meatballs during a taping of “Stump Sohla,” in New York. El-Waylly became a familiar face on YouTube as a standout on Bon Appetit’s test kitchen channel. But during the nationwide racial reckoning following the police killing of George Floyd, she was among members of the test kitchen who accused the channel’s owner, Conde Nast, of discriminatory practices. She departed Bon Appetit in August after failed negotiations. Her new show is her own, pushing her to deploy her talent, charm and encyclopedic culinary chops to solve challenges. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
‘Babish’ expands as pandemic boosts YouTube cooking shows

Daily views of videos with “cook with me” soaring

FILE - Oprah Winfrey arrives for the presentation of Stella McCartney’s ready-to-wear Fall-Winter 2019-2020 fashion collection in Paris on March 4, 2019. Winfrey is setting aside her usual book club recommendations and instead citing seven personal favorites ranging from James Baldwin’s landmark essays in “The Fire Next Time” to Mary Oliver’s poetry collection “Devotions.” She is calling her choices “The Books That See Me Through,” works she values for “their ability to comfort, inspire, and enlighten” her. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)
`The books that see her through’: Winfrey suggests seven

Mix of fiction, poetry, non-fiction and spirituality

Most Read