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10:24 AM

GSU Microbiologist Warns Bacterial Infections Could Cause Thousands of Deaths

During the COVID-19 pandemic, people are taking great pains and going the distance to avoid contracting the virus. But what causes much illness—and many deaths—is not only the virus but the bacteria that may be literally right under our noses, according to Timothy Gsell, professor of environmental microbiology at Governors State University.

“These potentially dangerous bacteria can live on your face around your nose and mouth, which is an easy way into your body,” he said. “The lining of your lungs normally traps these bacteria by creating mucus then pushing them out. But if your respiratory system is targeted and weakened by the coronavirus, these bacteria remain deep in the lungs and flourish in that warm, moist environment that  causes potentially deadly pneumonia.”

Dr. Gsell and other scientists cite antibiotic-resistant bacteria as the reason deadly bacterial infections could kill thousands suffering with COVID-19. He suggests the development of a vaccine to combat the virus and related bacterial infections, and less reliance on antibiotic drugs.

Sadly, this same issue has presented itself before—many times.

“If you look at the statistics of every viral pandemic, at least half the people that contract the virus ultimately die from secondary bacterial lung infections,” Gsell said. “It’s not new or uncommon.”

The problem has been the overprescribing of antibiotics by doctors. Gsell said widespread use of antibiotic drugs over the past 10 to 20 years has made many standard antibiotic drug treatments ineffective.

“The bacteria are evolving right in front of us. If they’re responsive to the drugs we use, they die. But if these pathogens become resistant, they take over. That’s forced evolution—survival of the fittest,” he said. “And the more antibiotics you use, the more resistance you see.”

Instead of prescribing more antibiotics, Gsell suggests a more effective and powerful treatment could be the development of vaccines targeting not only the virus, but the resistant bacteria that cause deadly pneumonia through secondary infections.

“Your body responds to microbes like the bacteria and it develops an immunity, which takes about two weeks, and can stay with you for life,” he said. "While the bacteria can mutate over time, they are usually more stable than a virus. Viral changes will take place rapidly. Targeting the bacteria by using a new vaccine will allow the body’s immune system to continue to recognize the pathogen and kill it, providing long-term immunity," Gsell said. 

Still, some people don’t like the idea of being vaccinated because they think taking a small part of the pathogen into their bodies could make them sick. Calling it “a balancing act,’’ Gsell said there is risk but it is minimal.

“About 30 to 60 percent of people with coronavirus are being afflicted with potentially deadly secondary bacterial infections. In a case like this, it should be emphasized that the risk of getting sick from the vaccine is extremely minimal, and usually involves allergic responses to other components in the vaccine."

Though studies have shown vaccines and novel antibiotics to be effective in many cases, they also require costly research on the part of pharmaceutical companies.

The companies developing these therapies need to make money, and may require government backing to produce enough vaccine and antibiotics. Meanwhile, and somewhat ironically, many physicians are now refraining from prescribing antibiotics for fear of pathogens developing resistance, eating into profit margins.

Gsell said he is hopeful the current pandemic might prompt the government to respond because the problem is “a major issue” beyond the coronavirus, he said.

“We need to see it as a global issue. The danger of secondary infections is always there because viral illnesses like COVID-19, swine flu, and bird flu can reoccur as pandemics and set the table for antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections that already kill thousands of people every year.”