The Pandemic within the Pandemic

SynCell News • January 05, 2021

COVID-19 is more than a pandemic.

It is the new reality of our lives, news feed, and every aspect of our existence. The world has suddenly been stopped to fight the enemy in front of us, blinding humanity from other threats that do not care about what we do. The reality is that the current pandemic is slowly dragging a second slow-motion pandemic behind, one that we already know too well: the antibiotic-resistant crisis.

Even when we know that SARS-CoV-2 is not affected by antibiotics, new data from hospitals worldwide reveals a crude reality: high proportions of patients—more than 90% in some places—are being treated with antibiotics.

But why?

Antibiotics do not work with viruses, and we know that. However, they can control whatever comes after, and this is often a secondary bacterial infection.

When a virus makes its appearance, there is always a struggle. Over the course or at the end of the infection, the immune system is entirely exhausted, getting weaker over time. Using this weakness to their advantage, opportunistic pathogenic bacteria take the chance and jump right into the body. The secondary bacterial infection is then developed, making the problem far worse than it was before.

Bacteria like Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Staphylococcus aureus are experts in entering the body in stealth mode behind a virus. While the latter is causing the mess, rendering visible and painful symptoms, those bacteria have evolved to hide behind them and show symptoms similar to the virus, which become almost impossible to differentiate.

Then, the only available and safe resource to fight these bacteria passes through the use of antibiotics. As such, hospitals and clinicians do what they have to do to save a life: they use antibiotics, an action that does not go without consequences.

Antibiotics do not work with viruses

One of the worst bacterial complications behind viral infections is pneumonia, an old fellow-traveler to viral pandemics. The relationship of the bacteria with the viral disease is well-linked and developed, appearing in up to 75% of those infected with the influenza virus.

In 2007, a group of scientists reviewed a raft of scientific literature from the 1918 flu, the most severe viral pandemic in recent history, with a third of the world’s population becoming infected. They reexamined tissue samples stored from autopsies during that outbreak and found that the vast majority of the possible one hundred million deaths during the pandemic were caused not by the influenza virus but by a bacterial infection affecting lung tissue traumatized by the virus.

One year after that analysis was published, the 2009 H1N1 epidemic began. That outbreak was initially considered mild by the WHO, with an estimated death toll of around two hundred eighty-four thousand people by the CDC. Once the pandemic started to disappear, data showed that up to 55% of deaths were caused not by the flu’s initial assault but by bacterial pneumonia coming along afterward. Antibiotics were used to treat them, but they did not work.

Currently, with the news of a vaccine, and the promise of long-lasting protection, humanity might be facing the end of this pandemic. Then, once the world steps up again, it would be the moment to look back to what happened, and only then will we be able to assess the impact of the use of antibiotics to treat those suffering from a pandemics that has already infected more than 80 Million people worldwide by the end of 2020.