Genes linked to antibiotic-resistant superbugs found in Arctic

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By Fiona Harvey Environment correspondent

Discovery of genes, possibly carried by birds or humans, shows rapid spread of crisis

Genes associated with antibiotic-resistant superbugs have been discovered in the high Arctic, one of the most remote places on earth, showing the rapid spread and global nature of the resistance problem.

The genes were first identified in a hospital patient in India in 2007-8, then in surface waters in Delhi in 2010, probably carried there by sewage, and are now confirmed in soil samples from Svalbard in the Arctic circle, in a paper in the journal Environment International. They may have been carried by migrating birds or human visitors, but human impact on the area is minimal.

While the genes, called blaNDM-1, have been identified in soil on the Norwegian archipelago, the presence of superbugs has not. The genes can confer on bacteria resistance to carbapenems, which are antibiotics of last resort for the treatment of human diseases.

Antibiotic resistance threatens a global “apocalypse”, England’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has warned, and last week the health secretary, Matt Hancock, called it a bigger threat than climate change or warfare. Common operations could become life-threatening and rapidly spreading and evolving diseases could overcome our last medical defences, reversing nearly a century of remarkable progress in human health.

For the study, DNA was extracted from 40 samples of soil at eight locations in Svalbard, and among these a total of 131 antibiotic resistant genes were found. The blaNDM-1 gene was found in more than 60% of the soil cores studied.

This discovery in such a remote region demonstrates the role that poor sanitation can play in generating antibiotic resistance, according to David Graham, a professor of ecosystems engineering at Newcastle University, who led the research team. While efforts to curb the growth of resistance have concentrated on overuse of antibiotics, this research shows there are other pathways by which resistance can be spread, he said.

“What humans have done through excess use of antibiotics is accelerate the rate of evolution, creating resistant strains that never existed before,” he said. Crucially, poor sanitation provides a breeding ground for resistant bacteria that can then spread rapidly.

The research showed the need for a worldwide response to the resistance crisis, said Graham, in place of the piecemeal efforts in some regions to curb overuse of the drugs in human health. “Local strategies can only do so much – we must think more globally,” he said. “The problem will be political.”

Wealthy countries and wealthy people in developing countries who feel insulated from the filthy conditions of the world’s poor may find themselves falling victim to the same superbugs as resistant bacteria evolve rapidly in poor sanitation and can spread far afield. Helen Hamilton, a senior policy analyst at WaterAid, said: “We cannot tackle the rise of antimicrobial resistance without focusing on water, sanitation, hygiene and infection prevention control. In today’s globalised world, a drug-resistant infection in one part of the world will not be constrained by national borders.”

She said the key was to bring better sanitation to developing countries, particularly for medical facilities, of which four in 10 in the developing world lack clean water on-site. This contributes directly to the growth of resistant infections. “We must tackle this silent crisis and make sure every health care facility has clean, safe water, decent toilets and soap and water for handwashing,” she said. “Prevention is the first step to slowing antimicrobial resistance and improving global health security.”

Superbugs kill about 2,000 people in the UK each year, and a further 53,000 people are seriously affected. Last week, the government announced new measures to cut the use of antibiotics by 15% in the next five years, through education, preventive measures, more testing, and changing prescribing practices.

There will also be a new NHS initiative to encourage pharmaceutical companies to invest in developing new antibiotics, by changing the way they are paid for some medicines. Drug companies largely left the field of antibiotics research over the last 40 years to pursue more profitable lines of business, meaning the “pipeline” of new medicines has been largely empty.

Antibiotic resistance is forecast to kill 10m people a year by 2050 unless urgent action is taken globally.

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