What is antibiotic resistance?

The issue

Antimicrobials are already in the environment, either naturally or from man-made sources. Bacteria exposed to these can develop resistance. Antibiotics are manufactured all over the world and production facilities should operate within local laws to make sure potential harmful material or ‘discharge’ doesn’t get out into the environment.

Global pharmaceutical companies usually have specific requirements that go above and beyond. But because of inconsistency in regulation, oversight or enforcement in different countries – and a lack of global standards – more must be done to reduce the negative impact antibiotics have on the environment.

The solution

Companies set science-based discharge limits in September 2019 – 2 years ahead of target – and are now assessing their own sites and those of their suppliers. They will then carry out audits to verify reported results and agree corrective measures if necessary.

All manufacturers in the global supply chains must be encouraged to comply to the new limits

Antibiotic resistance is when your bacterial infection does not respond to treatment from antibiotics.

If you suffer food poisoning, get a serious cut, or a bacterial infection – such as a urinary tract infection (UTI) – your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to weaken and kill the microbes causing the symptoms.

These microbes have evolved over tens of millions of years to be effective at infecting humans. They developed different ways to evade the body’s immune system such as releasing proteins to disrupt your white blood cells or camouflaging themselves to avoid detection.

In that constant battle to get better and better and overcome the evolutionary defences that humans developed, microbes didn’t count on Alexander Fleming inventing penicillin in 1928. Humans had a new weapon to treat infections; and then another as scientists built on that work to invent new antibiotics.

Problem solved?

But microbes live much shorter lives than we do. Humans might have a new generation every 20 or 30 years. For E Coli – the food poisoning bug – they can produce a new generation every 20 MINUTES.

Antibiotics were good at weakening and killing different microbes, but just as natural selection led them to develop defences against the human body over millions of years, drugs like penicillin turbo-charged the need for them to overcome this new threat.

We had a head start, but microbes can divide and learn much faster than we can develop new antibiotics. Now, there are strains which are resistant to our more commonly used antibiotics, meaning doctors have to use stronger and stronger drugs to treat patients. This is called antibiotic (or antimicrobial) resistance – or AMR.

Using antibiotics inappropriately, like taking them for a viral infection or not competing the full course to totally eradicate the infection, give microbes opportunities to try out the new defences they’ve taught themselves. The more we misuse antibiotics, the better microbes get at resisting them.

And so, the more we use our last lines of defence – the strongest antibiotics in our arsenal – the more opportunity we are presenting to microbes to outwit us.

Why don’t we just develop new antibiotics?

The solution to antimicrobial resistance isn’t straightforward.

Last modified: 20 September 2023

Last reviewed: 20 September 2023