We rely on antibiotics to treat infections—they’re critical tools in human medicine. But due to their overuse, particularly in factory farms, they’re becoming less effective. Bacteria are evolving in reaction to overuse of antibiotics, forming new strains—or superbugs—that cannot be quelled by modern medicine.
Today, scientists announced the presence of a new superbug in both a human patient and a pig in the United States. The new superbug is a strain of E. coli that is resistant to colistin, an antibiotic doctors use to treat infections in people when all other drugs have failed. Colistin is an old antibiotic that fell out of common use because it can severely damage a patient’s kidneys. Doctors only accept that risk when it’s the last option left—and this new, antibiotic-resistant bacteria could take that option away.
Last year, researchers originally found the colistin-resistant superbug in pigs, raw meat and hospital patients in China. Chinese farmers use colistin extensively in agriculture, both in pigs and farmed fish, creating just the right conditions for colistin-resistant bacteria to emerge and spread from animals to people and across the globe. While colistin is not allowed in U.S. agriculture, antibiotic overuse anywhere creates antibiotic resistance that can spread anywhere—and the U.S. livestock industry uses many other antibiotics in similar ways that promote the development of resistance.
This new colistin-resistant superbug can share its resistance gene with different types of bacteria. When colistin resistance moves to dangerous bacteria that are already resistant to other antibiotics, we will face a serious superbug that can’t be treated with any antibiotics at all. The presence of the superbug in both livestock and humans creates multiple opportunities for the superbug’s colistin-resistant gene to transfer to other bacteria that can make people sick.
The once looming antibiotic resistance crisis is here, and Congress must address antibiotic misuse in the United States. Eighty percent of antibiotics in the U.S. are used in livestock and poultry—typically to compensate for health problems caused by factory farm conditions. That’s why Congress needs to pass legislation to ban the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock.