Approximately 14,000 deaths in Canada in 2018 were associated with resistant infections. Of these, 5,400 deaths were directly attributable to antimicrobial resistance (AMR). Researchers across Canada are working to develop new therapies to treat resistant infections and exploring innovations that could help to decrease infection rates. One promising area of study is the microbiome.
For World Microbiome Day, we asked B. Brett Finlay, Chair of CCA’s Expert Panel on the Potential Socio-Economic Impacts of Antimicrobial Resistance in Canada, for his thoughts on the Panel’s report When Antibiotics Fail, microbes, and his own work. Dr. Finlay is a UBC Peter Wall Distinguished Professor and a Professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia. He is Co-Director and Senior Fellow of the CIFAR Humans and Microbes program and co-author of the books Let Them Eat Dirt: Saving Your Child from an Oversanitized World, and The Whole-Body Microbiome: How to Harness Microbes – Inside and Out – for Lifelong Health.
It’s been about seven months since we released When Antibiotics Fail. Do you have any reflections on the report now that you’ve had some time to look back?
I am very proud of When Antibiotics Fail. It was a very serious, detailed, and rigorous study that closely examined the effect of antibiotic resistance on Canadian society in the future. It was a wakeup call for the world, and is cited worldwide to argue for prudent antibiotic use.
What lessons do you think COVID might hold for the challenge posed by antimicrobial resistance (AMR), and vice versa? How are the two issues connected?
Antibiotic use skyrocketed with COVID, even though antibacterials don’t have a direct effect on viruses. The other major effect is that society has become much more “hygienic,” using hand sanitizer and all sorts of other antimicrobial agents. These all contribute to resistance. The other major lesson is that we truly need to respect microbes. Who would have thought that a small piece of RNA could disrupt our modern world to that extent!
How have you been adapting to working under COVID? How has work continued or changed at your lab?
COVID has had a major impact on our research. In early March we were forced to halt all experiments immediately, and basically barred from the campus. The most unfortunate part was we had to sacrifice all our animals, including several mice involved in long term Parkinson’s experiments. We have just partially reopened (30% capacity) and are starting things up slowly again. All university courses also had to immediately move online, so we had to rapidly adapt to teaching by Zoom. All scientific meetings were also immediately cancelled, which had a major impact on the scientific community. Similar things happened to colleagues worldwide, and the long term impacts will be felt for years to come.
If you could share one fact about the microbiome you think everyone would benefit from knowing, what would it be?
In one gram of feces, there are more microbes than all the people on planet Earth.