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The plague after the pandemic

2 September 2020

Covid 19 is the pandemic de jour but what about the unexpected effect that may happen in the months, weeks and years that follow?

We've been warned for decades that the excessive use of disinfectants, antibiotics and other forms of anti-bacterial agents is creating increased resistance in such pathogens.

With replication rates measured in minutes or hours rather than years, it does not take bacteria long to adapt and evolve to survive in all but the harshest environments. When it comes to antibiotics we already have a few bacteria that are resistant to all known drugs and these are causing a resurgence in diseases such as TB and some STDs.

So what's the link to CV19?

Well the use of disinfecting agents, especially anti-bacterial and anti-viral hand-washes has become prolific. You can't go into a retail shop or supermarket these days without being required to douse your hands in chemicals that will allegedly destroy all the bad germs you have on your palms and fingers.

However, the problem is that these chemicals seldom destroy them all.

There are always going to be a few on the margins that are subjected to a non-destructive dose of the disinfecting agent.

I'm pretty sure that most reading this column understand how the concepts of evolution and adaptation work so as to ensure the survival of an organism but just in case some of you were out the back of the bike sheds having a smoke that day...

When exposed to a non-lethal dose of antimicrobial/antiviral agent, the organisms most naturally resistant to the effects of this chemical will survive, those which are naturally less resistant will perish.

Those resistant organisms are then free to reproduce, creating a subgroup that exhibits this resistance. Further exposure to even more concentrated solutions will harden this resistance by more rounds of natural selection.

Eventually, given sufficent generations of this organism and repeated exposure to borderline-effective doses of the disinfecting or antibacterial agent, resistance can become almost complete. This results in a strain that will not be affected by any amount of further disinfecting -- a "superstrain" so to speak.

Profligate use of disinfectants, anti-bacterial hand-washes and other products that have been sold to consumers on the basis of cleanliness and safety have already pushed many strains of bacteria quite a way down this path, could the recent addiction to hand-cleaning push us over the edge?

Might we start seeing the appearance of some rather nasty skin infections caused by bacteria that have become totally immune to the effects of regular alcohol-based hand sanitisers? Could a rash of these infections be the post-pandemic wave that we've brought upon ourselves?

We must also remember that our immune system is just like most other parts of the human body and needs exercise to function at full efficiency. If we remove the biological challenges it uses to remain fit and in shape, could we end up being immunocompromised by our own excessive cleanliness?

Fortunately, I think the risks are low. Unfortunately I'm just as sure that the risk is not zero.

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