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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“A disaster waiting to happen”: Can you trust the government to digitise your personal data?

Privacy and security experts warn against the lesser-scrutinised Part 5 of the Digital Economy Bill, claiming bulk data sharing could be vulnerable to hacks.

Last week, the government’s Digital Economy Bill hit the news because of a proposed ban on pornographic websites that didn’t comply with its planned age verification rules. The news was just the right amount of shocking and yes, sexy, to grab the nation’s attention, but in the meantime other parts of the Bill remained unscrutinised. A distinctly un-sexy aspect of the Bill – Part 5, “Digital Government” – aims to completely revolutionise the way your personal data is shared.

In essence, Part 5 allows the government to digitise your data and bulk-share it without informing you or asking for your permission. This data includes your birth, death, and marriage certificates, as well as information on your taxes, court appearances, benefits, student loans, and even parking tickets. If the Bill passes, your information will be shared with local councils, charities, and even businesses – initially, gas and electricity companies.

Today, the Bill will undergo its third reading in the House of Commons. Last Friday, 26 privacy experts wrote to the Daily Telegraph to call for Part 5 to be removed from the Bill due to the lack of technical and legal safeguards in place.

“It's horrid and it's complex and it's going to impact all of us,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of Big Brother Watch, an organisation that scrutinises the government to protect individual privacy. Big Brother Watch was invited by the government to work on the Bill as part of the government’s Open Policy Making, but Samson feels it was ignored when discussing the need for strong safeguards in the Bill. “Holding civil registration documents in bulk and sharing them in bulk is without a doubt a data disaster waiting to happen.”

Samson and her team worry that the Bill does not do enough to protect our personal data. “They tell a little story in one of their documents about mothers being able to click and access their baby’s birth certificate instead of having to go and get a copy, which sounds brilliant except they haven’t defined how they’ll know the mother is who she says she is, and how she will know who she can trust on the other end,” she says. “In a perfect, idyllic utopia, it works, but it doesn’t take hacking into consideration.”

According to the National Audit Office, in 2014-15, there were 9,000 data breaches across government departments. The subsequent inquiries revealed that many officials did not know how to report a breach and there was not enough guidance for the authorities involved. “The government is already failing to look after our data,” says Samson. “Fundamentally [Part 5] will lead to data breaches. People’s data will get lost and we won't ever know how or why.”

Though the government denies it, there are additional fears that this digitisation of data is the beginning of an ID database, a policy that was scrapped in 2011. At the time, then-Home Office minister Damian Green said that ending the proposed National Identity Register demonstrated “the government’s commitment to scale back the power of the state and restore civil liberties”.

Whether or not a register is created, however, Samson and other privacy experts, as well as the British Medical Association, take issue with the fundamental justifications for bulk data sharing. “The reason that they've given for wanting to do all this is ‘wellbeing’, which is crap, frankly,” she says. “In the summer, the Scottish Parliament dropped the Named Person Scheme because the supreme court found that ‘wellbeing’ is simply not a strong enough reason to share people’s personal information. Of course they’re trying to do something great but they’re going about it in a really cack-handed fashion.”

One example of this is that the government intends to share your personal information with the Troubled Families programme to identify people who may be at risk. Although this is ostensibly positive, this information will also be used to determine anti-social behaviour. “On the one hand, they’re saying that they’ll make sure that families who need help will get it, but on the other, if it transpires that you’re noisy or you’re difficult on your estate, they will now share that data so you can have an Asbo.”

Fundamentally, then, although the aims of the Bill seem admirable, there are simply not enough safeguards and rules in place currently for it to safely become law. While this partially might be a simple error on the government’s part, Samson argues that the language of the Bill is “as open and broad and woolly as you can possibly imagine”, causing concern about how it might actually be used in practice. In theory, hundreds or thousands of businesses and authorities could have access to your data without your consent.

“No one is opposing the idea of data sharing,” says Samson, “But a) tell us why, b) keep us informed if you’re using our data, and c) let us control our data. That’s the only way this is all going to move forward.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.