A new gene that makes bacteria highly resistant to a last-resort class of antibiotics has been found in people and pigs in China.
Some samples have the potential for epidemic, according to Reuters.
The discovery was described as “alarming” by scientists, who called for urgent restrictions on the use of polymyxins, a class of antibiotics that includes the drug colistin and is widely used in livestock farming.
“All use of polymyxins must be minimized as soon as possible and all unnecessary use stopped,” said Laura Piddock, a professor of microbiology at Britain’s Birmingham University who was asked to comment on the finding.
Researchers led by Hua Liu from the South China Agricultural University who published their work in the Lancet Infectious Diseases journal found the gene, called mcr-1, on plasmids — mobile DNA that can be easily copied and transferred between different bacteria.
This suggests “an alarming potential” for it to spread and diversify between bacterial populations, they said.
The team already has evidence of the gene being transferred between common bacteria such as E.coli, which causes urinary tract and many other types of infection, and Klesbsiella pneumoniae, which causes pneumonia and other infections.
This suggests “the progression from extensive drug resistance to pandrug resistance is inevitable,” they said.
“[And] although currently confined to China, mcr-1 is likely to emulate other resistance genes … and spread worldwide.”
The discovery of the spreading mcr-1 resistance gene echoes news from 2010 of another so-called “superbug” gene, NDM-1, which emerged in India and rapidly spread around the world.
Piddock and others said global surveillance for mcr-1 resistance is now essential to try to prevent the spread of polymyxin-resistant bacteria.
China is one of the world’s largest users and producers of colistin for agriculture and veterinary use.
Worldwide demand for the antibiotic in agriculture is expected to reach almost 12,000 tonnes per year by the end of 2015, rising to 16,500 tonnes by 2021, according to a 2015 report by the QYResearch Medical Research Centre.
In Europe, 80 percent of polymixin sales — mainly colistin — are in Spain, Germany and Italy, according to the European Medicines Agency’s Surveillance of Veterinary Antimicrobial Consumption (ESVAC) report.
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