Superbug MC1R immune to antibiotics, able to convert other bacteria hard to keep out of Australia, experts say
It may already be too late to prevent a new antibiotic-resistant superbug found in China from spreading to Australia, experts say.
Scientists have discovered a new superbug that is not only immune to antibiotics, it can also make other bacteria become drug resistant.
The superbug, called the MC1R (melanocortin 1 receptor) gene, was first found in a strain of E.coli discovered in meat in China, but has now also been found in meat samples from Germany, Malaysia and in a Danish patient.
Experts say Australia must introduce compulsory testing of all fresh food imports or risk devastating consequences.
Professor Lindsay Grayson, director of infectious diseases at Melbourne’s Austin Hospital, said the implications are that a person could consume food that contains the superbug, and even if there are a small number of them, they can convert healthy bugs in that persons bowel to become more superbugs.
“It’s a bit like having a washing machine full of white t-shirts and you put one red t-shirt into the washing machine and do a hot wash and all the white t-shirts become red t-shirts,” he said.
“The red t-shirt doesn’t multiply itself — it leeches out in that case the dye or in this case the resistance gene and causes all the healthy bugs in your gut to become resistant.”
Peter Collignon, professor of infectious diseases at the Australian National University, said the real worry about the gene is that they have found large numbers in isolates of E.coli and other bacteria in China.
“But it very much looked like it was coming across to the human isolates because of the heavy use of a particular drug called colistin in food animals.”
Colistin was one of the most powerful drugs doctors had left at their disposal, often used in intensive care when nothing else would work.
“That then allowed this gene, or this resistance, to get into very high numbers which then people pick up in the bacteria that they carry,” Professor Peter Collignon said.
“It easily can go from bacteria to bacteria.”
A fast spread of the superbug would be a problem, Professor Collignon said, if the spread was from the use of large amounts of antibiotics in animals it would result in a large reservoir of the resistant bacterium genes that can cross over to humans.
Australia needs ‘evidence-based’ imported food testing regime
Professor Grayson said Australia must introduce mandatory testing of food imports, or consider banning the importation of fresh food into Australia.
“The current Australian testing program only tests for drug residues that is left over fragments of antibiotics and does not test for superbugs.
“In fact, at the Senate hearing two years ago, it was the Government who mentioned that under the current international trade rules, we can’t set up a testing program for imports unless we have a testing program for our own local produce.
“But we really need to get on with this and establish such a program.”
He said the superbug could easily spread to Australia.
“This has lots of consequences and it’s really confirming something that we’ve been warning for many years now,” he said.
“In fact it was presented to the Senate enquiry two years ago, the concerns of the contamination of the food chain with superbugs and then with international importation of food, fresh food that you can get cross border transmission of these superbugs.”
Professor Collignon agreed that food testing in Australia must improve.
“The real problem is we do this on faith and I think that’s a bad idea, we need evidence-based decisions,” he said.
“If we actually really look at the data, the data says there is a problem out there and we have to do, in my view, a certain amount of testing to make sure we’re not importing problems that we don’t have already in this country.”
May be too late to stop superbug from reaching Australia
However Professor Grayson said it may already be too late to prevent this superbug from arriving in Australia.
“What you’ve got to realise is if you think of all the tourists that are going to China and these other places and consuming food in those countries, when they return to Australia their own gut flora may now contain superbugs and they just won’t know,” he said.
Professor Grayson said that new antibiotics may be years away.
“Ten years ago there was something like 20 companies producing new antibiotics,” he said.
“It’s now down to three and so the bushfire, if we use an analogy here, the bushfire of superbugs and emergence of resistance is running and yes, we need new fire trucks and helicopters, but they’re 10 or 15 years away and in the meantime we have to build some sort of firebreak.
“And that firebreak is infection control measures within hospitals, but also setting up a more rigorous testing program to try and weed out those instances where superbugs can enter the country.”