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Accelerating The Three-Billion-Year-Old Dance of Phages With Bacteria

As Covid-19 and other diseases spawn resistance to over-used antibiotics, phages – viruses that naturally infect and kill bacteria – may be a long-term replacement

By Shane Raymond

Doctors Globally worry daily about fighting Covid-19. However, some doctors and medical experts now worry not just about the damage the virus can cause, but about the medical battles that will follow in its wake.

Under guidelines produced in April  by  the  Health  Service Executive’s Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Team, antibiotics are to be given to Covid- 19 in-patients with symptoms of bronchitis or pneumonia, or who produce coloured sputum when they cough.

The guidelines also stated that “frail elderly patients” are at greater risk of death from infections and, so may need to be prescribed with antibiotics far earlier than doctors might otherwise do with patients of that age.

While often necessary to save lives, the long- term result of a growth in the already high use of antibiotics worries some healthcare professionals, including Dr Liam Burke, a bacteriology lecturer and researcher at the Centre for One Health at NUI Galway.

“With Covid, the whole world is using tons of normally don’t cause any problems at all. But, when our immune system is down they can cause an infection. The more antibiotics we use, the more bacteria get resistant”, he considers.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that antibiotic resistance is “one of the biggest threats” today, warning that a host of infections including pneumonia, tuberculosis, food poisoning and gonorrhoea are becoming harder to treat as antibiotics become less


Because of that, WHO says health professionals should only prescribe antibiotics when necessary and patients should make sure not to share or use leftover antibiotics.

New treatments are needed, but they are hard to come by, Dr Burke says. Antibiotics take years to develop, cost billions, and are only taken for a few days by most patients and so are not lucrative. Drugs for chronic diseases such as diabetes are taken daily for years, and so are far more profitable.

The incentive to develop new antibiotics is also reduced by bacterial resistance – since Big Pharma cannot sell a drug that no longer works. One of the most promising avenues, Dr Burke goes on, is the use of phages – viruses that naturally infect and kill bacteria. Colin Hill, Professor in the School of Microbiology at University College Cork, is a leading researcher in the field: “Phages are the most abundant biological entities on the planet”, he says. There’s about ten quintillion