Sickening study: ‘Superbug genes’ posing bigger threat than climate change and war found in Svalbard, researchers say. (But don’t head for the doomsday bunker quite yet)


From the viral wasps of “Fortitude” to a biohazard “Doomsday Key” in the seed vault in a best-selling novel, discovering mysterious deadly elements that threaten to wipe out humanity has long been a stalwart of Svalbard fiction. But real-life researchers say they have discovered a “superbug genes” able to resist the most powerful antibiotics of last resort for treating human diseases in the archipelago, escalating the struggle to control infections to a crisis level.

Yes, that sounds scary, especially when other researchers have recently stated such a threat more critical than climate change or war. But superbugs themselves are not new and this one isn’t quickly threatening to spread and wipe out mankind – rather, it indicates evolving diseases could elude existing medical defences and spread to virtually all areas of the planet.

The gene in the study was first detected in a hospital patient in India in 2008 was discovered in 40 samples of soil at eight locations in Kongsfjorden, although the actual superbug itself as not, according to Newcastle University researchers who published their findings in the journal Environment International. Researchers stated the gene was likely fecal matter of migrating birds or human visitors, which is a primary concern since the area is considered one of the last “pristine” places on Earth in terms of such matter.

“Encroachment into areas like the Arctic reinforces how rapid and far-reaching the spread of antibiotic resistance has become,” David Graham, the study’s senior author, said in a prepared statement Sunday. “The findings confirm that solutions to antibiotic resistance “must be viewed in global rather than just local terms.”

Recent warnings about the threat of antibiotic resistance include it being called a potential global “apocalypse” by Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer,  and the country’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, telling the World Economic Forum it represents a bigger threat than climate change or warfare.

In the case of the Svalbard study, the gene’s existence in such a remote region shows how  poor sanitation affects antibiotic resistance, and how wealthy countries and wealthy people in developing countries who feel insulated from the filthy conditions of the world’s poor may find themselves falling victim to the same superbugs infecting the latter.

“In today’s globalized world, a drug-resistant infection in one part of the world will not be constrained by national borders,” Graham said. “What humans have done through excess use of antibiotics is accelerate the rate of evolution, creating resistant strains that never existed before.”

In additional to improving antibiotic methods in medicine and agriculture, understanding how resistance transmission occurs through water and soils is also critical, the researchers stated. Among the most important aspects of that are improved waste management and water quality on a global scale.