Don’t let the superbugs bite

But don't despair - we might be struggling but we are not beaten yet.

Evolution continues to be a bitch. Recently scientists gathered in Kensington, London, to have a good moan and to plan what can be done about it. “Superbugs and Superdrugs” is a great title for a meeting. Unfortunately the bugs seem to be more super than the drugs.

While that meeting went on, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning that we are entering a “nightmare” era. The CDC’s problem is a killer bacterium known as CRE, which is spreading in the US. Some strains of CRE are not only resistant to all antibiotics; they are also passing on that resistance to other bacteria, creating drug-resistant strains of E coli, for instance. On 11 March, Sally Davies, the UK government’s chief medical officer, asked the government to add the superbug problem to its “strategic risk register”, which highlights potentially catastrophic threats to the UK.

For a while, it all looked so good. When scientists discovered penicillin, then ever more weapons for our antibiotic arsenal, it seemed that bacteria had been defeated. The problem is, they fought back.

For all the worry over CRE, perhaps nowhere is this antibiotic resistance more evident than with tuberculosis. In the west, we won the war on TB so convincingly that receiving the BCG vaccine against it – once a waymark in British childhood – is no longer routine. Only in certain inner-city communities where migrant populations increase the likelihood of encountering the TB bacterium are children routinely immunised. However, in 2011, the World Health Organisation marked London out as the city with the highest TB infection rate in western Europe.

Many resistant bacteria originate in hospitals, where pharmaceutical regimes kill off the normal strains, making space in which bacteria that are naturally resistant can proliferate. Yet you can’t always blame the drugs. Research published at the end of February shows that drug resistance can arise even when the bacteria have never encountered a chemical meant to kill them.

In the study, E coli bacteria were made to suffer by exposing them to heat and restricting the nutrients in their environment. According to conventional wisdom, this should have kept proliferation in check – but it caused a spontaneous mutation that made the E coli resistant to rifampicin, one of the weapons in our antibiotic arsenal. What is worse is the observation that there was good reason for this mutation to arise: it made the stressful conditions more survivable. Bacteria with the mutation grew much faster.

Bacteria are survivors – if they can’t magic up a spontaneous mutation, they’ll pick one up in the street. A sampling of puddles in New Delhi showed that almost a third contain the genetic material that allows bacteria to produce an enzyme that destroys a swath of antibiotics. The NDM-1 gene is particularly evil. Its tricks include forcing itself into gut bacteria such as E coli that are incorporated into faeces; as a result, the resistant strains travel between hosts with ease.

Many infections involving a bacterium carrying NDM-1 are untreatable. GlaxoSmithKline is reportedly developing a drug to deal with it but it is years behind the curve. In the autumn, an EU project to mine the seabed for so far undiscovered antibiotics will start up, but it will take years for that, too, to bear fruit.

Let’s end on a positive note. Superbugs might be evolving in fiendish ways but they’re doing it blind and they’re up against evolution’s greatest invention – the human brain. We might be struggling but we are not beaten yet.

The EHEC bacteria. Image: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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Age verification rules won't just affect porn sites – they'll harm our ability to discuss sex

Relying on censorship to avoid talking about sex lets children down.

The British have a long history of censoring sex. In 1580, politician William Lambarde drafted the first bill to ban "licentious" and "hurtful... books, pamphlets, ditties, songs, and other works that promote the art of lascivious ungodly love". Last week, the UK government decided to have another crack at censorship, formally announcing that age verification for all online pornographic content will be mandatory from April 2018.

It is unclear at this point what this mandatory check will entail, but it's expected that you will need to submit your credit card details to a site before being allowed to access adult content (credit cards can’t be issued to under-18s).

The appointed regulator will almost certainly be the British Board of Film Classification who will have the authority to levy fines of up to £250,000 or shut down sites that do not comply. These measures are being directly linked to research conducted by the NSPCC, the Children’s Commissioner and the University of Middlesex in 2016, which surveyed more than 1,000 11 to 16-year-olds about viewing online pornography and found over half had accessed it. 

Digital minister Matt Hancock said age verification "means that while we can enjoy the freedom of the web, the UK will have the most robust internet child protection measures of any country in the world". And who can argue with that? No sane adult would think that it’s a good idea for children to watch hardcore pornography. And because we all agree kids should be watching Peppa Pig rather than The Poonies, the act has been waved through virtually unchallenged.

So, let’s put the issue of hardcore pornography to one side, because surely we are all in agreement. I’m asking you to look at the bigger picture. It’s not just children who will be censored and it’s not just Pornhub and Redtube which will be forced to age check UK viewers. This act will potentially censor any UK site that carries adult content, which is broadly defined by the BBFC as "that it was produced solely or principally for the purposes of sexual arousal".

I am a UK academic and research the history of sexuality. I curate the online research project www.thewhoresofyore.com, where academics, activists, artists and sex workers contribute articles on all aspects of sexuality in the hope of joining up conversations around sex that affect everyone. The site also archives many historical images; from the erotic brothel frescoes of Pompeii to early Victorian daguerreotypes of couples having sex. And yet, I do not consider myself to be a porn baron. These are fascinating and important historical documents that can teach us a great deal about our own attitudes to sex and beauty.

The site clearly signposts the content and asks viewers to click to confirm they are over 18, but under the Digital Economy Act this will not be enough. Although the site is not for profit and educational in purpose, some of the historical artefacts fit the definition of  "pornographic’" and are thereby liable to fall foul of the new laws.

And I’m not the only one; erotic artists, photographers, nude models, writers, sex shops, sex education sites, burlesque sites, BDSM sites, archivists of vintage erotica, and (of course) anyone in the adult industry who markets their business with a website, can all be termed pornographic and forced to buy expensive software to screen their users or risk being shut down or fined. I have contacted the BBFC to ask if my research will be criminalised and blocked, but was told "work in this area has not yet begun and so we are not in a position to advice [sic] you on your website". No one is able to tell me what software will need to be purchased if I am to collect viewers' credit card details, how I would keep them safe, or how much this would all cost. The BBFC suggested I contact my MP for further details. But, she doesn’t know either.

Before we even get into the ethical issues around adults having to enter their credit card details into a government database in order to look at legal content, we need to ask: will this work? Will blocking research projects like mine make children any safer? Well, no. The laws will have no power over social media sites such as Twitter, Snapchat and Periscope which allow users to share pornographic images. Messenger apps will still allow users to sext, as well as stream, send and receiving pornographic images and videos. Any tech savvy teenager knows that Virtual Private Network (VPN) software will circumvent UK age verification restrictions, and the less tech savvy can always steal their parents' credit card details.

The proposed censorship is unworkable and many sites containing nudity will be caught in the crossfire. If we want to keep our children "safe" from online pornography, we need to do something we British aren’t very good at doing; we need to talk openly and honestly about sex and porn. This is a conversation I hope projects like mine can help facilitate. Last year, Pornhub (the biggest porn site in the world) revealed ten years of user data. In 2016, Brits visited Pornhub over 111 million times and 20 per cent of those UK viewers are women. We are watching porn and we need to be open about this. We need to talk to each other and we need to talk to our kids. If you’re relying on government censorship to get you out of that tricky conversation, you are letting your children down.

The NSPCC report into children watching online pornography directly asked the participants about the effectiveness of age verification, and said the children "pointed out its limitations". When asked what intervention would most benefit them, this was the overwhelming response: "Whether provided in the classroom, or digitally, young people wanted to be able to find out about sex and relationships and about pornography in ways that were safe, private and credible." I suggest we listen to the very people we are trying to protect and educate, rather than eliminate. 

Dr Kate Lister researches the history of sexuality at Leeds Trinity University