The patients who deluged the emergency room at Detroit Medical Center in March and April exhibited telltale symptoms of the coronavirus: high fevers and infection-riddled lungs that left them gasping for air.

With few treatment options, doctors turned to a familiar intervention: broad-spectrum antibiotics, the shot-in-the dark medications often used against bacterial infections that cannot be immediately identified. They knew antibiotics were not effective against viruses, but they feared the patients could be vulnerable to life-threatening secondary bacterial infections.

“During the peak surge, our antibiotic use was off the charts,” said Dr. Teena Chopra, the hospital’s director of epidemiology and antibiotic stewardship. She and other doctors across the United States who liberally dispensed antibiotics in the early weeks of the pandemic said they soon realized their mistake.

Now, doctors nationwide are seeking to draw lessons from their overuse of antibiotics, a practice that can spur resistance to lifesaving drugs as bacteria mutate and outsmart the drugs. Antimicrobial resistance is a mounting threat that claims 700,000 lives annually — a global health crisis that has been playing out in slow motion behind the scenes while the coronavirus took center stage.

In recent weeks, public health experts have been warning that the same government inaction that helped foster the rapid spread of the coronavirus could spur an even deadlier epidemic of drug-resistant infections. The United Nations warns such an epidemic could kill 10 million by 2050 if serious action is not taken.

The pipeline for new antimicrobial drugs has become perilously dry. Over the past year, three American antibiotic developers with promising drugs have gone out of business, and most of the world’s pharmaceutical giants have abandoned the field.

Legislation in Congress to address the broken antibiotics marketplace has failed to gain traction in recent years, but public health experts are hoping the coronavirus pandemic can help break the political logjam in Washington.

Source : The New York Times

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