Thursday, June 18, 2020

Claas Kirchhelle's "Pyrrhic Progress"

Claas Kirchhelle is an historian at the University of Oxford. His award-winning research explores the history of antibiotics and the development of modern risk perceptions, microbial surveillance, and international drug regulation.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Pyrrhic Progress: The History of Antibiotics in Anglo-American Food Production, and reported the following:
From page 99:
"...the effect of the addition of antibiotic supplements [to domestic feeds] is unlikely to be of commercial importance.” (1951)
To my surprise, page 99 takes us right to the heart of Pyrrhic Progress' exploration of uncertainty, overhasty decision-making, and counter science in 20th century drug regulation. What at first glance appears to be a very unexciting sentence from a technical report is in fact an explosive statement that casts doubt on the science underpinning one of the most significant expansions of modern antibiotic use.

Since the 1930s, antibiotics' ability to treat and manage bacterial infections has saved countless lives. However, it is often forgotten that over 50% of global antibiotic use does not occur in humans but in animals and plants. A large part of agricultural use was initially driven by the so-called 'antibiotic growth effect'. Accidently discovered by US industry researchers in 1949, the 'antibiotic growth effect' stated that regularly feeding low doses of antibiotics to animals and humans could promote their growth and ability to convert food. The discovery drove a major expansion of global antibiotic use and made it acceptable for producers to routinely medicate increasingly large numbers of animals.

But the science behind antibiotic growth promoters was murky. In 1951, British government researchers, who were keen to replicate US findings, found no pronounced benefit of adding antibiotics to rations. However, their concerns about US data and antibiotics' selection for resistant bacteria on farms were ignored. In 1953, Britain followed the US and licensed low-dosed antibiotic growth promoters. Abstract long-term hazards were outweighed by hopes for economic benefits resulting from cheaper meat and new agricultural outlets for the antibiotic market.

Although studies continued to question their efficacy and safety, low-dosed antibiotics became a standard component of animal rations. Their alleged importance for global food security was cited by industry to oppose restrictions when fears about bacterial resistance to antibiotics became more widespread from the 1960s onwards.

Low-dosed growth promoter feeds were eventually banned first in the European Union between 1998 and 2006 and in the US from 2013 onwards. By this time, many producers had begun to doubt feeds' effectiveness and it was clear that agricultural antibiotics had contributed to the emerging global health crisis of bacterial resistance. By reconstructing the turbulent history of agricultural antibiotics, Pyrrhic Progress highlights the difficulties of modern drug regulation and the danger of prioritising short-term gains over long-term health hazards.
Learn more about Pyrrhic Progress at the Rutgers University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue