LISBON, Portugal — Antibiotics that are helping to treat patients with COVID-19 may actually be fueling a concerning rise in the number of superbugs infecting people worldwide. Researchers in the United States have found that cases of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections are going up in comparison to the last year before the coronavirus pandemic.
Concerningly, drug resistant infections which develop while a patient is in the hospital are soaring during COVID, and these infections are affecting those with and without the virus.
According to Dr. Karri Bauer and Dr. Vikas Gupta, approximately 1.2 million people died worldwide of an antibiotic-resistant infection in 2019. Estimates predict that number will be 10 times higher by 2050.
During the current health crisis, the researchers found that COVID-19 is challenging doctors who are trying to treat the virus without having their patients develop antimicrobial resistance (AMR) secondary infections. However, the study points to the increase in antibiotic use and disruptions in infection prevention and control practices as the two leading factors which are driving up life-threatening bacterial infections.
COVID patients are particularly as risk
Study authors looked at all adult patients over the age of 18 entering one of 271 hospitals across the U.S. before and during the pandemic. Each of these patients spent at least one day in the hospital, regardless of testing positive for COVID-19 or not.
In total, the study examined the health records of nearly 1.8 million hospital patients prior to the pandemic (from July 1, 2019 to Feb. 29, 2020) and another 3.7 million patients during COVID (from March 1, 2020 to Oct. 30, 2021). Overall, 63,263 people entered the hospital with at least one AMR during the pre-pandemic period. That number doubled to 129,410 during the pandemic.
When the researchers examined the AMR rates for every 100 hospital admissions, they found that the overall rate actually dropped slightly from 3.54 per 100 admissions pre-pandemic to 3.47 during COVID. Despite that, the team found a higher rate of antibiotic-resistant infections among patients entering the hospital during the pandemic — jumping to 4.92 per 100 admissions.
Hospitals becoming a breeding ground for bacteria?
The news is even worse for infections developing while someone is in the hospital. Prior to COVID, the AMR rate was just 0.77 per 100 hospital admissions. That number rose to 0.86 during the pandemic and skyrocketed to 2.19 among patients testing positive for COVID.
“These new data highlight the importance of closely monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on antimicrobial resistance rates,” says Dr. Bauer, who works for the pharmaceutical company MSD, in a media release. “It is particularly worrying that antibiotic resistance has been rising during the pandemic in both SARS-CoV-2 positive and negative patients. Hospital-acquired infections are a major concern, with antimicrobial resistance rates significantly higher during the pandemic than before.”
“As healthcare capacity remains at the forefront of everyone’s mind, it will be critically important to keep a pulse on the growing impact of drug-resistant infections,” adds Gupta, from medical technology company Becton Dickinson. “This type of data and surveillance will help healthcare leaders identify needed resources to support antimicrobial stewardship programs – and also support more detailed and sophisticated forecasting of future trends and outbreaks.”
The team presented their findings at this year’s European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID).