those awful superbugs

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Fri Aug 10 2001 - 22:21:55 MDT

Today in Oz, the radio Science Show broadcast the final ep in a 6-part
series on innovation.

The transcript isn't there yet, but you can check out the names of
dignitaries yacking on abt the ethics of it all. Guy Rundle, editor of the
[post?]marxist journal ARENA, explained how antibiotics were the classic
instance of global corporate science gone mad. First they helped us,
admittedly, by saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Then they were
reckless introduced into animal feedstocks, etc, which created the climate
for the evolution of... resistant superbugs! Case closed, game & match!

I'd been musing on this very example last night, wondering how to get
across to ordinary folks how ludicrous it seems to me. But my logic and
facts might be in error, so I'd like to run my riposte past the biologists
on the list:

`Superbugs', so-called, are not some new and unheralded kind of omnipotent
monster bacterium. (And of course they can't be any kind of virus, because
antibiotics shouldn't affect those critters--unless altering the background
ecological mix does somehow skew the norm of reaction for viri.)

What they are is, by definition, *bacteria resistant to a particular
antibiotic*, or perhaps a family of similar antibiotics.

That means that their evolution, at worst, has reverted the balance of play
to the way it was originally.

*Except* that, in the meantime, monocultural agribiz has reduced the
genetic diversity of crops, making widespread variants especially
vulnerable to the rebound diseases. That's not the fault of antibiotics
*per se*, though. It might be a very good reason to worry about excessively
centralized and massively advertised corporate food production.

My feeling is that one needs to be very careful in describing the real
problem(s), and allocating blame. As far as I can see, *nobody* has been
harmed by applying antibiotics to ill humans. I and many others are now
alive because of them. If we now face, at worst, reversion to a condition
where resistant bacterial diseases roam the world unchecked, that's very
sad--not because of the brief, blessed epoch of cheap, effective
antibiotics, but because it's at an end.

In fact, I doubt that it *is* at an end, because soon our medical knowledge
will be so far advanced by genomics, proteomics etc that we'll outdo even
the vast genetic algorithm factories of the natural world (i.e., our own
bodies and those of our livestock, where the bugs breed and mutate).

If that's true, resistance will be, for the superbugs, futile. And even if
it's not true, the supposed `superbugs' provide no evidence at all that we
have entered a new era of unprecedented malignancy--Gaia `fighting back',
as some dopes like to think of it. It's just, at worst, a return to
ecological business as usual.

Any comments, Robert, Curt, Carol, you-all?

Damien Broderick

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