The Growing Threat of Superbugs and Viruses

Human beings have existed on Earth for nearly 200,000 years, and none of the many pathogens or natural disasters they faced has succeeded in wiping them out. So, worrying about humanity’s vulnerability to a strain of bacteria, superbugs or a virus seems like irrational pessimism. It’s pessimistic, certainly, but it’s not irrational.

Few people realize how tenuous human existence really is. For example, about 75,000 years ago, a huge volcanic eruption in what is now Lake Toba in Indonesia nearly eradicated the entire human race. The eruption killed all but a few thousand people worldwide. Seismologists say that such events are cyclical and that another one is overdue. Other natural threats include asteroid impact, nuclear war, and artificial intelligence. According to many experts, however, the most immediate threat doesn’t come from the heavens, machines, or from under the ground. It comes from bacteria and viruses.

Those experts say that a bacterial infection or viral epidemic wiping out humanity is unlikely in the foreseeable future, but it’s not impossible. What is much more likely, they say, it that a pathogen could kill huge numbers. Most people know about the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918-19. In recent years the impact of that pandemic has been reevaluated. It is now thought to have killed more people than all the wars of the 20th century combined.

The Spanish flu happened at a time when mass global travel had not yet started. Now, millions of people traverse the globe every day, and so do the bugs they carry with them. Being cooped up on airplanes exacerbates the problem as does the fact that just over half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, most of which are becoming more densely populated every year. Contagious diseases spread quickly in these accommodating environments and, when a serious infection starts, authorities often don’t realize its extent until it is well established and more difficult to tackle. If a viral pandemic like the Spanish flu happened today, the number of casualties would likely be much greater than in 1918.

Penicillin and Drug Resistance

Until the discovery of penicillin in 1928, humanity relied on a combination of luck and the non-mobility of populations to contain most infectious diseases. Now, it relies mostly on the medical profession and the pharmaceutical industry. These lines of defense are weakening, however. Many new and powerful antibiotics have been developed since 1928, but an increasing number of pathogens have acquired resistance to most of them. Up until the mid-1980s, the pharmaceutical industry had managed to stay a few steps ahead of the bugs by regularly producing more powerful antibiotics. Since then, however, it has produced very few new ones. At the same time, a number of pathogens have developed resistance to even the most powerful existing antibiotics. Those pathogens, commonly called “superbugs,” have evolved resistance faster than the pharmaceutical industry has developed drugs capable of fighting them.


Testing for bacterial resistance. Credit: Dreamstime


Unsurprisingly, an ever-growing number of people are succumbing to drug-resistant bacterial infections and many are dying as a result. The problem has been exacerbated by doctors and veterinarians carelessly over-prescribed antibiotics for decades. The more often a particular new drug is administered the quicker the targeted bugs develop resistance to it. Medical experts warn that this situation will worsen unless drastic action is taken globally.

This battle cannot be won by the pharmaceutical industry. That industry is profit driven and largely reactive. So it develops drugs only when there’s a market for them, i.e. when a disease is clearly identified and already active. Serious diseases, however, sometimes crop up unexpectedly, and millions of people can become infected and die before a suitable drug is developed, distributed, and administered. In military terms, that’s like waiting for the enemy to attack with its latest advanced weapon before even beginning to devise a strategy to counter it. That would be no way to protect a population from potential military aggression, which is why the military continuously spend huge amounts on researching and developing new weapons and defense systems, even though they know many will never be used.

Biological Weapons

There is another reason for a military approach to this problem: terrorism and biological weapons. Disease spread intentionally by a terrorist group has always been a worry for governments and the military. Until recently, however, it was regarded as a relatively minor worry because of the technical and logistical difficulties involved. That changed in 2002 when the first synthetic virus was created in a laboratory. As a result, it is now theoretically possible to create any virus in a laboratory if its genome sequence is known. That includes viruses regarded until recently as being extinct.


Fireman with biological hazard protection suit. Credit: Fedecandoniphoto/ Dreamstime


In 2014, to help promote research into new vaccines, the US National Institute of Health published a database online of the full genome sequences of over 3,800 viruses. The database includes the genome sequence of the smallpox virus. That deadly virus was eradicated from the human population some years ago and the only existing strains of it are held in just two secure locations, one in Russia and the other in the US. Because the disease was eradicated, vaccinating most people against it ended some years ago. If somehow the virus reappeared today, most of the human race would be vulnerable.

When European settlers first reached the Americas, they carried many diseases, including smallpox. Because the Native American population had never been exposed to those diseases before, they had no immunity. An estimated 70% of them died as a result.

The sad fate of the Native American should be instructive. Yet the amount governments worldwide spend on medical research and general disease preparedness today is a tiny fraction of their military budgets, despite disease killing vastly more people than wars. Those absurd statistics show that governments have yet to grasp the glaring lessons of history. As the 18th century Anglo-Irish parliamentarian, Edmond Burke warned, “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”