The overuse of antibiotics has gotten a lot of attention in the medical community. We take them for illnesses they can’t possibly treat, and we feed them in bulk to animals on feed lots (in order to fatten them up and keep them healthy in unhealthy conditions). Such broad use allows bacteria to evolve resistance to common antibiotics, creating conditions that can give rise to antibiotic resistant “super bugs.” It’s a recipe for disaster, and a pandemic waiting to happen. So far we’ve been able to escape this nightmare scenario, but it’s only a matter of time before our luck runs out.
A similar but lesser-known threat comes in the form of antivirals being leeched into the environment. Low levels of antivirals are leaking into rivers and streams, which exposes the viruses that arise in animals, which in turn could be transferred back to humans.
Mallard ducks, for example, are natural harbingers for influenza. They also happen to live in rivers that are contaminated with low levels of antivirals. This creates a situation where influenza and other pathogens could develop a natural immunity to the common antivirals used to treat such illnesses, threatening human health and potentially leading to deadly epidemics.
The coronavirus, believed to have been transferred to humans from either bats or pangolins, seems to have arisen from a natural mutation. But the next pandemic may be a beast that we’ve created through our own carelessness.
1. J.D. Jarhult et al., PLoS One 6, e 24742; 2011
2. A. Gillman et al., Appl. Environ. Microbiol., 81, 2378-2383; 2015