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Are Superbugs A Bigger Threat To The Global Economy Than Terrorism?

Between that Russian plane being taken down by a soda can bomb and the recent Paris attacks, travel is losing some of its appeal.

Last night, for instance, I was at a party talking to a friend who's retiring soon. When asked about his plans, he said he'd love to visit Italy, where he has some relatives. But not right now. "There's a lot to see right here in the Pacific Northwest," he said. "And you don't have to fly to get there."

With less tourism comes less trade, and with less trade comes less growth -- as if the already-overleveraged and sputtering global economy needed another push towards the edge. See Container freight rates plummet 70% in 3 weeks.

But while we were distracted by ISIS, something potentially even more serious happened in, of all places, a Chinese pig farm:

A 'superbug' emerges in China to remind us that antibiotics won't last forever

(Washington Post) - In general, I do my best not to alarm you. But antibiotic resistant bacteria are alarming -- and you should be afraid.

According to a study published in Lancet Infectious Diseases, a gene dubbed MCR-1 is becoming more common in bacteria found in China. MCR-1 gives bacteria the ability to resist antibiotics called polymyxins. These harsh antibiotics are considered a last line of defense -- a treatment when bacteria have shown resistance to everything else. But with MCR-1 in tow, bacteria can thwart our most aggressive drugs.

That means they're basically invincible. And MCR-1 could theoretically end up jumping to all manner of bacteria.

"Polymyxins were the last class of antibiotics in which resistance was incapable of spreading from cell to cell," co-author Jian-Hua Liu, a professor at Southern Agricultural University in Guangzhou, told the AFP.

So much for that.

The researchers tested slaughterhouse pigs and raw meat from markets for the gene. MCR-1 was found in 20 percent of the sampled pigs and 15 percent of the meat, and in increasing abundance from year-to-year. The gene was also found in E. coli K. pneumoniae samples taken from 16 of 1,322 patients at two Chinese hospitals.

The results are troubling, to be sure. But they're not surprising. Antibiotic resistant bacteria is already implicated in at least 700,000 deaths per year worldwide, and some estimate that the death toll could skyrocket to 10 million per year by 2050, if trends continue.

A recent report found that most members of the public don't even really understand what antibiotic resistance means. It's a simple equation: The more antibiotics that are used, the more bacteria are exposed to them and have the chance to evolve resistance. If we don't conserve our antibiotic usage, we'll quickly run out of antibiotics that actually work.

Polymyxins are meant to be reserved for dire medical cases -- after all, these drugs are too toxic for a human to want to consume. But in China, their rare usefulness in humans has led to a secondary use: animal husbandry. Chinese pigs are some of the biggest consumers of the drug colistin, a kind of polymyxin, which is used to fatten them up. The researchers report that this is almost certainly the breeding ground of the resistance, and that the Ministry of Agriculture has launched an investigation to assess this.

We may not have ruined colistin on pigs in the United States, but we're on a path to do the same with other antibiotics. An estimated 70 percent of the antibiotics important to health are used in livestock in the United States. We may not be throwing away our last line of defense, but we're whittling away at our day-to-day treatment options -- making it more likely that we'll need harsh drugs like colistin.

Scary stuff, on a lot of levels. But the most immediate is financial: Let a few high-profile cases of this or a similar bug crop up in the US and Europe, and locals will lose all interest in traveling to the places thought to be the source of the infections -- or of hosting visitors from those places. As for imports of meat and other things that might contain bacteria, forget it.

The combination of wide-spread terrorism and super-bug disease might impede the flow of people and goods in ways that tariffs and other forms of protectionism never could. This might, in fact, be the week that the era of free trade and open borders came to an end.

* Optimistic coda: Pandemics are obviously bad things. But the rise of superbugs does offer a few favorable side effects. First, it might bring an end to factory farming, one of the most brutal -- and it turns out, destructive -- chapters of human history. Second, it will accelerate the trend towards local food, which is great for small organic/sustainable farms and local communities in general -- at the expense of Big Food.

 

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