The Bureau has been tracking the growing threat of superbugs and antibiotic resistance since 2016. We began by focusing on antibiotics used in the food supply chain and in farming - a major but under-reported driver of the problem.
Our work revealed that use of fluoroquinolone antibiotics – a class of drugs very important in treating human disease – was soaring in UK poultry farms. The drugs are banned in the US as they fuel the rise of drug-resistant food poisoning bugs.
Next, we exposed a loophole that meant pigs infected with the livestock variant of MRSA could be freely imported into Britain. A study found three packets of supermarket meat were contaminated with MRSA, indicating the bug had already entered the food chain.
We have also looked into the antibiotic supply chain. We found NHS hospitals are buying drugs from factories in the major drug production hub in Hyderabad, India whose dirty production methods fuel the rise of superbugs - with no checks or regulations to stop this happening. Lord Jim O’Neill, who chaired the government’s major review in antibiotic resistance, called our findings ‘deeply troubling’. We later reported on a study which revealed ‘excessively high’ levels of antimicrobial drugs in waste water from an industrial estate in Hyderabad.
In 2016 we began looking at how many people are dying in the UK as a result of drug-resistant infections. Our work showed the Government’s estimate of 5,000 deaths a year was based on crude guesswork and was a vast underestimate.
In 2017 we revealed prescriptions of the ‘last hope’ antibiotic – called colistin – were soaring in British hospitals, with experts blaming a rise in superbugs.
Then, we reported on the rise of a multi-drug-resistant bacteria which doctors dubbed ‘worse than MRSA’ in hospitals. We showed an outbreak in Greater Manchester killed five times as many people as previously reported. Experts said the bacteria posed a grave threat and needs urgent government action.
The drug resistance project has been funded by the generosity of organisations including the Oak Foundation, Changing Markets and the European Journalism Centre.