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, in a May 14, 2020 story. (Photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS)

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

Antimicrobial resistance killed 5,400 in 2018

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.

Coronavirus

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

Just Posted

UPDATE: Heartland Youth Centre has named the winners in this year’s fundraising raffle

Nan Gardner has won the grand prize of the 2020 GMC Terrain

Alberta reports just seven new COVID-19 cases

‘Today’s numbers mark an occasion to be celebrated’

Town of Stettler sports fields close for improvements

The Turf Revitalization Plan has been expedited from the initial five-year strategy

Still no confirmed active COVID-19 cases in Red Deer, central zone

There are 15 new confirmed cases were in Alberta, the province said Thursday

It’s back to business at Stettler’s Superfluity

This year also marks organization’s 40th anniversary

PODCAST: Black Lives Matter in central Alberta

Community organizers come on the show to discuss central Albertan anti-racist movement

Montreal man believes rough arrest caught on video was racially motivated

Montreal man believes rough arrest caught on video was racially motivated

N.B. police shooting of Indigenous woman leads to questions on ‘wellness checks’

N.B. police shooting of Indigenous woman leads to questions on ‘wellness checks’

Minister says reckoning on police violence against Indigenous people needed

Minister says reckoning on police violence against Indigenous people needed

Nunavut to bring in civilian police review after arrest video: minister

Nunavut to bring in civilian police review after arrest video: minister

Trudeau takes a knee at anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill

Trudeau takes a knee at anti-racism protest on Parliament Hill

Liberal MP Marwan Tabbara faces assault, break and enter, harassment charges

Liberal MP Marwan Tabbara faces assault, break and enter, harassment charges

Black Canadians say racism here is just as harmful as in the United States

Black Canadians say racism here is just as harmful as in the United States

Implementation of Divorce Act reforms delayed eight months by pandemic

Implementation of Divorce Act reforms delayed eight months by pandemic

Most Read