New paper highlights potential impact of COVID-19 on antimicrobial resistance

A short paper on the COVID-19 outbreak and its potential impacts on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has just been published by Dr Aimee Murray, Research Fellow at the University of Exeter Medical School.

As antibiotic use grows, bacteria are becoming increasingly resistant to treatment. AMR jeopardises modern healthcare which relies on access to antibiotics to prevent and treat infections associated with routine medical procedures.

Dr Murray said: “The COVID-19 epidemic is a massive threat to global health and the global economy. I wanted to highlight that AMR, also a massive threat to society, could be impacted by COVID-19 in lots of different ways.”

It has been estimated that in 30 years, AMR infections will cause one death every three seconds, as well as a loss of over $1 trillion in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) worldwide. Dr Murray works on how human use of antibiotics and antimicrobials (like pharmaceuticals or disinfectants) can lead to increased AMR in the environment, with colleagues in the European Centre for Environment and Human Health.

Dr Murray said: “The first thing that crossed my mind was there will be a lot more antibiotics and antimicrobials entering the wastewater treatment plant system, and I wondered if that might increase levels of AMR in the environment.”

Previous work by Dr Murray has shown that low concentrations of antibiotics, similar to those found in the environment, can increase AMR levels. Antibiotic use is likely increasing in hospitals as part of COVID-19 treatment. Though antibiotics are not effective against the virus that causes COVID-19, they are used to treat COVID-19 patients who contract bacterial infections whilst ill. Similarly, use of disinfectants and household cleaners will have soared in the hospital and in the community. Many of these contain antimicrobials that could also lead to the development of AMR. Therefore, the current COVID-19 epidemic could be worsening the AMR problem further down the line.

However, there may be a silver lining. In addition to combatting COVID-19, better hygiene practices globally will also reduce the spread of AMR bacteria, both in hospitals and in the community. Reduced travel will also limit the spread of AMR between countries.

One final area where Dr Murray is optimistic is public awareness of AMR. She hopes that comparisons between COVID-19 and AMR can be used to illustrate how quickly outbreaks can occur, how difficult they are to control, and that sometimes, there is no ‘cure’.

Dr Murray said: “To be able to answer many of these questions, we need to act quickly and do the research now. I hope that sharing these ideas early on will complement current research, stimulate new research and in time, broaden the discussion around COVID-19 to include AMR.”

The paper, entitled, “The Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 Outbreak: Global Implications for Antimicrobial Resistance” is published in Frontiers in Microbiology and is available open access here.

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