Public officials and media worldwide have paid considerable attention recently to developments around the H7N9 influenza, which, according to officials in China where the outbreak started, has killed 7 people and infected 24 others, most of whom suffered mild flu-like symptoms. The virus is known to come from birds, like SARS back in 2003, but its genetic code has yet to permit it to jump from human to human – only from chickens to humans. Health officials at the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S. and the World Health Organization (WHO) are closely monitoring the viral outbreak.
All the news from China, notwithstanding, other developments have received much less attention but are likely to be much more impactful. For instance, a new and mysterious coronavirus has surfaced in the Middle East, killing 11 people and infecting an unknown number so far. The source of the virus is unknown, but it is killing those known to be infected at a rate of 40 percent. Meanwhile, medical researchers are noting that we face “nightmare bacteria” that are rapidly mutating beyond current antibiotic capabilities. Roughly 5,000 patients die each year in English hospitals from drug-resistant sepsis. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control reports that one-tenth of all infections from one family of bacteria, Klebsiella and 4 percent of all enterobacteriaceae infections are now antibiotic resistant, a fourfold increase in 10 years with a potent 40-percent kill rate.
The steady stream of media attention to developments around the H7N9 virus seems rather odd, given the larger and more risky outbreaks elsewhere in the world. The issue is stranger because the very public focus on a Chinese virus, which has no cure, seems to be coming at the expense of human awareness of killer bacteria, where cures could be developed.
But then, the chances of finding a cure for troubling bacteria have been declining lately. Since 2009, 8 major drug companies have abandoned research on and production of antibiotics, preferring, instead, to focus their research money on more lucrative chronic illnesses (e.g., diabetes and high-blood pressure). Level-three studies for promising antibiotics often get postponed because of cost, and so, the three companies remaining in the field of antibiotic development have not received FDA approval for anything new lately, and thus, drug-resistant bacteria move forward.
Nature seems to be taking advantage of human vulnerabilities, while companies that could address the problem are looking elsewhere. Will governments need to step in?