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

Getty
Show Hide image

New Times: David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed – both of which squeeze the state's power.

Left-wing political parties exist to use the power of the state to rectify unjust distributions of power in society. What has gone wrong with this project? First, the political parties bit. Established parties everywhere are struggling to seem relevant to most people’s everyday concerns: they look increasingly like the tired relics of a more hierarchical age. The exception, of course, is the current Labour Party, which has opened itself up to become the biggest mass-membership party in Europe. But the trade-off has been to move away from seeing the acquisition of power as its primary purpose. These days parties can only really draw people in by offering to be vehicles for the expression of political resentment and disenchantment. But that is no way to rectify the causes of their resentment; neglecting the challenge of power usually ends up making things worse.

However, this is just a symptom of the wider problem, which is the changing nature of power. Technology lies at the heart of it. The digital revolution has had two profound effects on how power is distributed. First, it has empowered individuals, by providing them with unprecedented access to information, tools of communication and the means of expression. This is power exercised as choice: we all now have multiple ways of registering our likes and dislikes that never existed before.

Second, the digital revolution has empowered networks, creating vast new webs that span the globe. Some of them, such as Facebook, are close to being monopolies. We end up joining the networks that other people have joined, because that’s where the action is. This gives a small number of networks an awful lot of power.

Both of these developments are deeply problematic for the power of the state. The proliferation of choice makes citizens much harder to satisfy. Many of us have got used to micromanaging our lives in ways that leaves government looking flat-footed and unresponsive, no matter how hard it tries. At the same time, states face global networks that they have no idea how to control. International finance is one of these: money is information and information now has too many different ways to flow. States are getting squeezed.

The paradox is that the same forces that are squeezing the state are also giving impetus to left-wing politics. There are huge imbalances of power being created in networked societies. The monopolists are hoovering up money and influence. Personal connections count for more than ever, now that networked connections have become ubiquitous. Education is turning into a way of pulling up the drawbridge rather than moving up the ladder. One temptation for the left is to assume that the evidence of injustice will sooner or later outweigh the disabling effects of these social forces on the state. That is part of the Corbyn gamble: hang around until people are sufficiently pissed off to start demanding social-democratic solutions to their problems.

I don’t think this is going to happen. There is nothing to suggest that popular dissatisfaction will find its way back to the state as its best outlet. It will be channelled through the networks that are making the life of the state increasingly difficult.

The other temptation is to think that the left can achieve its goals by bypassing conventional social democracy and channelling its own ambitions into network politics. This is the other side of the Corbyn gamble, or at least the view of some of the people who have attached themselves to him: a new politics is coming that uses digital technology to mobilise fleet-footed networks of activists who can generate change without going through the cumbersome and time-consuming process of winning general elections. That also looks pretty wishful to me. These networks are just another vehicle for expressing personal preferences. They don’t have any means of changing the preferences of people who think differently. You need to win power to do that.

The state’s power is being squeezed by networks of empowered individuals, but these networks don’t have the kind of power necessary to do the redistributive work of the state. What is the left to do? It needs to try to find value in the fact that the state is not just another network. The right does this instinctively, by talking up the state’s security functions and championing ideas of sovereignty and national identity. But that does nothing to address the deleterious effects of living in a modern networked society, where we are swamped by personal choice but impotent in the face of corporate and financial power.

Rather than trying to harness the power of networks, the left should stand up for people against the dehumanising power of Big Data. The state isn’t Google and should not try to pretend to be. We don’t need more choice. We don’t need more efficiency of the kind that digital technology is endlessly supplying. We need protection from the mindless bureaucratic demands of the new machine age: the relentless pursuit of information, regardless of the human cost. There are limits to what the state can do but it retains some real power. It still employs real human beings; it educates them and provides them with welfare. It should do what is in its power to make the work tolerable and the education meaningful, to provide welfare in ways that don’t leave people at the mercy of faceless systems. The left needs to humanise the state.

At the moment, too much energy is being spent trying to humanise the party. We are told that people are tired of robotic, careerist politicians; they want unspun versions of people like themselves. But robotic politicians aren’t the problem; the coming age of robots is. While the party tries to feel more comfortable with itself, the effects of a networked society are running rampant. Acquiring the power of the state is still the best way to fight back. It doesn’t matter if that has to be done in an ugly, mechanised, artificial way, by careerist politicians with whom we wouldn’t choose to spend our personal time. Better an ugly, artificial politics than an ugly, artificial world. 

David Runciman is a professor of politics and the head of the department of politics and international studies at Cambridge

This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.

 

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times