Pharmaceutical companies that produce antibiotics are creating dangerous superbugs when their factories leak industrial waste, Madlen Davies of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reported in September 2016. Superbugs are bacteria that become resistant to antibiotics. Pharmaceutical factories in China and India—the places where the majority of the world’s antibiotics are manufactured—are releasing “untreated waste fluids” into local soils and waters, leading to increases in antimicrobial resistance that diminish the effectiveness of antibiotics and threaten the foundations of modern medicine. A number of the companies have established links to US markets.
After bacteria in the environment become resistant, they can exchange genetic material with other germs, spreading antibiotic resistance around the world, according to an assessment issued by the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), which served as the basis for Davies’ news report. Davies describes a case where a drug resistant bacterium that originated in India in 2014 has since been found in 70 other countries. Superbugs resulting from pharmaceutical pollution have already killed an estimated 25,000 people across Europe—thus posing a global threat “as big a threat as terrorism,” according to a UK National Health Services official, NHS England’s Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies. In a May 2014 report, Martin Khor quoted Dr. Keiji Fukuda, who coordinated the World Health Organization’s work on anti-microbial resistance between 2010-16. According to Fukuda, “A post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries can kill, far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”
At the heart of the issue is how to motivate pharmaceutical companies to improve their production practices. With strong demand for antibiotics, the companies continue to profit despite the negative consequences of their actions. The EPHA briefing recommends five responses that major purchasers of medicines can do to help stop antibiotic pollution. Among these recommendations are blacklisting pharmaceutical companies that contribute to the spread of superbugs through irresponsible practices, and promoting legislation to incorporate environmental criteria into industry good manufacturing practices.
There is little to no coverage on superbugs in the corporate press. A search of establishment news coverage, using the ProQuest and Westlaw databases, yielded many scientific research articles but almost no corporate news coverage on the topic addressed to the public. What corporate news coverage there is tends to exaggerate the risks and consequences of natural outbreaks—as seen during the Ebola scare in the US in 2014—rather than reporting on the preventable spread of superbugs by irresponsible pharmaceutical companies.
Source: Madlen Davies, “How Big Pharma’s Industrial Waste Is Fueling the Rise in SuperBugs Worldwide,” Bureau of Investigative Journalism, September 15, 2016, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2016-09-15/how-big-pharmas-industrial-waste-is-fuelling-the-rise-in-superbugs-worldwide.
Student Researcher: Yadira Martinez (Sonoma State University)
Faculty Evaluator: Roxanne Ezzet (Sonoma State University)