Treating COVID-19 may fuel another dangerous problem: antibiotic resistance

Critical care providers face the same high stakes question nearly every day in the pandemic. Could a COVID-19 patient's pneumonia-like symptoms be triggered by the coronavirus or by a potentially deadly bacterial infection?

Dr.  Stephen Trent, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Infectious Diseases at the University of Georgia's College of Veterinary Medicine, who has been studying antibiotic resistance for 20 years, says there are few easy answers. 

"If you get a bacterial infection on top of COVID, half of those patients will die," Dr. Trent says.  "So, 50%, it's a big number."

When we overuse or prescribe the wrong antibiotics, Dr. Trent says, bacteria can become resistant to the drugs we have to destroy them, creating so-called "superbugs."

He is concerned that frontline COVID healthcare providers may be turning to antibiotics before it is clear a patient really needs them.

"If they don't have a bacterial infection, we really don't want to give them an antibiotic," Trent says.  "At the same time, if you've already had 20 or 30 other patients die because you think they had a bacterial infection, you're going to be inclined to want to go ahead and give that.  So, it's kind of like this Catch-22 thing."

The World Health Organization (WHO) does not recommend using antibiotics for patients with mild or moderate COVID-19 unless there are signs they have a bacterial infection.

Still, a WHO review of recent research studies found while 72% of hospitalized COVID patients received antibiotics, only 8% showed signs of a bacterial or fungal co-infection.

Dr. Trent says there's a lot on the line.

"What people don't realize is, this is already a pandemic," Trent says. "So, by the year, 2050 more people will probably die from antibiotic resistance than cancer."