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The weird relationship between COVID and superbugs

March 11, 2021, 10:59 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

I remember the day the pandemic started (or at least, how it started to affect me and many others on a real level). Which is strange, because time seems to have lost all meaning, but a one-year-ish anniversary is a milestone nonetheless.

Fortune staff compiled a stellar and thoughtful list of the ways this past year has changed our lives already, and how it may continue to shape them well into the future. From the growth of industries to the fall of commonly accepted social norms, “normal” is going to have a new connotation.

Those are large-scale matters. But one of the more intriguing (and concerning) domino effects from this pandemic may lie at the cellular level, according to a new report from Pew Charitable Trusts. Specifically: What if the fight against a virus inadvertently strengthens bacteria?

Viruses and bacteria are easy to mix up, but they work in very different ways and require different treatments. You can’t use antibiotics to treat a virus. And the indiscriminate use of antibiotics can lead to the rather terrifyingly named “superbugs,” the bacteria which don’t respond to the conventional treatments because they’ve developed defenses.

The early days of the coronavirus pandemic were confusing as experts tried to figure out what, exactly, the bug was. But it turns out that many patients with COVID symptoms, per Pew’s analysis, were treated with one or more antibiotics.

That doesn’t help treat COVID and can simultaneously lead to more resistant and powerful strains of bacteria. According to the report, more than half of COVID hospital admissions analyzed led to at least one antibiotic being prescribed to a patient; more than 35% received multiple antibiotics, and in most instances, these treatments were given without confirming an actual bacterial infection.

It may come across as more of a future potential threat than the immediate one we’re facing. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it might be prudent to look out for the early warning signs before things get out of hand.

Read on for the day’s news, and see you next week.

Sy Mukherjee


Digital health in the developing world. Digital health has transformed the way that medicine works in America and abroad. My colleague Grady McGregor delves into what that's meant for the COVID vaccination effort in India, where Apollo Hospitals, the country's largest private hospital network, has leveraged the challenge into becoming a more efficient provider. “We’ve reached out to all our [14 million] patients” on the digital health platform, said Shobana Kamineni, the firm's vice chairperson, during a Fortune Global Tech Forum talk last week. “From that we were able to pick out the cohort that the government is allowing us to vaccinate [and] send them messages” to schedule appointments. She estimates that the digital health platform is making Apollo’s vaccine rollout three to four times as efficient as it would have been otherwise.(Fortune)


The other antibodies. The pandemic has understandably shifted public focus to the vaccination campaign. But treating those who are actually afflicted by COVID is also paramount to the public health cause. On that front, Vir Biotechnology and GlaxoSmithKline say that a clinical trial of an antibody-based therapy severely cuts the risk of hospitalization or death for some of the most vulnerable patients. COVID hospitalization and death rates plunged 85% compared to the placebo arm of the trial, according to the companies, hastening its quest for full authorization. (Bloomberg)


America's vaccine map. My colleagues Erika Fry and Nicolas Rapp are back with their latest update on America's vaccine distribution status now that the Johnson & Johnson one-shot variety has FDA authorization. And there's some good news on that front. "As of March 10, nearly one-tenth (9.9%) of the U.S. adult population, a total of 32.9 million people, had been fully vaccinated according to CDC data. 62.5 million individuals, or 18.8% of U.S. adults had received at least one dose of a vaccine, up from 52.9 million a week ago," they write. That's certainly encouraging. But the question going forward will be how these vaccine are distributed to underserved communities through pharmacy chains such as CVS, which itself announced an expansion in its COVID vaccine distribution efforts on Thursday. (Fortune)


Workers don't want to go back to the office post-pandemicby Lance Lambert

Game theory could help solve the COVID vaccine rollout puzzleby Luke Muggy

One year before the pandemicby Chris Morris