New Arms Race: Science Versus Antibiotic-Resistant Superbugs

Tomasz Pierscionek | RT | March 24, 2017

The death rate from bacterial infections plummeted following the discovery of penicillin. However, these microbes developed ways to resist our antibiotics. What threats do superbugs pose and what factors contribute to their emergence? The discovery and development of antibiotics saved millions of lives during the latter half of the 20th century. Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming, who witnessed soldiers with infected wounds perish while serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, per chance discovered a penicillin producing mold in 1928.

Tomasz PierscionekHowever, penicillin was not synthesized into medicinal form until over a decade later. Its subsequent mass production during the 1940s is credited with saving many lives during the Second World War. Although penicillin’s use was initially restricted to military hospitals, it soon became accessible to the general public in industrialized nations. In 1946, penicillin first became available on prescription in the UK.

People were jubilant over the discovery of a “wonder drug” that could cure many bacterial infections with high mortality rates, especially among infants and the elderly. For example, penicillin reduced the death rate of bacterial pneumonia from between 60-80 percent to 1-5 percent. Postoperative mortality rates also fell sharply. However, reports of penicillin-resistant bacteria began to emerge only a few years later. The first penicillin-resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus was identified in 1947. New penicillin-based antibiotics were duly manufactured, sparking an arms race between microbe and medicine...