The war against microbes

The War Against Microbes: Mission Impossible?

Williams Owoeye (Dawillty)

“The earth and everything on it belongs to microbes. The world and all its people belong to them.” – Psalm 24:1 (Microbial Easy-to-Read Version)

If microbes have organized religion like humans do, their scriptures would most likely be written in this manner, and of course, they would have a point. This certainly would hurt our human ego, as we like to boss around, claiming to be the most intelligent species on the planet.The fact, however, remains that we are at the mercy of these invisible creatures. A reflection on the abilities of their recent poster boy, SARS-CoV-2, should help make this point crystal clear. Interestingly, among the many groups of organisms which make up the microbial strata (algae, fungi, bacteria, archea and protozoa), viruses, by true biological definition, are not totally qualified to be called living things because they need to be in the body of another living organism called a host to live; outside a host, they are like microscopic salt crystals – lifeless. Yet, these semi-living dudes have claimed millions of human lives and still counting, and so one would wonder, are we really the bosses here?

Most times, we like to convince ourselves that we are on top of the game with our antimicrobial weapons such as drugs, vaccines, etc. With the recent addition of the various COVID-19 vaccine brands from Pfizer, Moderna, etc. added to our armoury, we do the Salsa dance in triumph. But, do these give us any substantial leverage? Far from it. Microbes have been shown to have the ability to live almost everywhere, be it hot or cold; from the moderate to the extreme. They even live in and on our body and they outnumber our own cells 10 to 1 (quick fact: some microbes could be putting to bed on your face right now and there is absolutely nothing you can do about it). They have also been around for a very long time (billions of years ago) and they know the game of survival better than some sacks of flesh and bones called humans that just came into the game some 200, 000 years ago. In addition, it has been proved that at the core of the survival game is the ability to adapt to negative environmental changes, and no entity does it better than microbes, due to their simple structure. If your bet is still on humans, I am very sorry for your loss.

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Microbes that directly affect humans can be largely grouped into two: there are the pathogenic ones that cause diseases and then the harmless ones, that sometimes offer protective services, as they have established themselves as natural inhabitants of our body. The microbes in the latter group can also be tagged the untouchable royals, as they have hacked the battle before it even began.  It is futile to attack the untouchable royals, in fact, often times than not, we harm ourselves when we attempt to harm them. Interestingly, they play crucial roles in our health, such as what happens in our brain, in our digestive system, and even our immune system. While the use of antibiotics and antiseptics suffice for treatment and disinfection of bacterial princes to a degree, we often encounter an unfortunate dead end – one that is very disastrous for public health – called Antimicrobial Resistance. This happens because these microbes are simply wisecracks; they use our weapons of offence to improve their defence. When a generation gets killed by antimicrobial drugs, the next generation can get better at resisting the drug due to mutation. This mechanism is well pronounced in bacterial organisms, but also extends to other microbial lifeforms. For example, have you wondered why you no longer see antimalarial drugs like Chloroquine in use? What should scare us is the fact that current drugs like Artemether-Lumenfantrine that work magic can also naturally become useless at some point in the future. What’s more baffling is that humans are even giving microbial resistance a boost through behaviours like skipping doses, not completing their medications and other practices that are broadly categorised as antimicrobial misuse. What if these microbes become resistant to all of our available drugs? Seems we are not much of the intelligent species after all.

One might wonder if there is any reason to be optimistic about this war against microbes, particularly for bacteria which are gradually evolving to take over the “pandemic reins” in sooner times from now. Of course, there is. A group of viruses called bacteriophages (a.k.a bacteria-eaters) have been recently identified as game-changers after scientists rediscovered their potential as a huge addition to our antibiotic warchest. Bacteriophages eat bacteria for pizza as they are the natural predators of bacteria, and they are as abundant and diverse as their food. Recent developments have seen the administration of cocktails containing these special viruses to cure some antibacterial-resistant infections. Even though it is still possible for bacteria to get resistant to them too, they have an edge with their ability to also change and adapt like bacteria because they come alive in the right environment. Antibiotic drugs can also be continuously developed, unlike the current situation where just 43 antibiotic drugs are in the clinical trial pipeline as mentioned in this tweet. There is even a possibility of seeing the hybridisation of bacteriophages and antibiotics; a blend of the organic and synthetic just to give us diverse options to fight these microbes. With the sustenance of these developments, coupled with a reduction in the activities of saboteurs of the war that practise antibiotic abuse and misuse, perhaps the war can be extended long enough, even if it can’t be won.

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