Disinfecting the anti-bacteria debate

By Steven Milloy
July 27, 2000, Washington Times

Are we too clean? Should we make homes safer for germs? That is the message you’ll get from today’s National Health Council conference, “Antibiotic Resistance: A Serious Public Health Threat.” But there is more to this message than its messenger will disclose.

The conference features Stuart Levy, professor at Tufts University School of Medicine and president of the Alliance for Prudent Use of Antibiotics. For years, Mr. Levy has crusaded against misuse of antibiotics an effort with some merit.

The World Health Organization (WHO) warned recently bacteria are increasingly resistant to antibiotic medicines. Once treatable diseases such as gonorrhea, tuberculosis, malaria may become incurable. Food poisoning is already more difficult to treat. Infections caught in hospitals, killing an estimated 88,000 annually, often resist at least one antibiotic.

The problem of antibiotic resistance isn’t new but the WHO alarm rightly spotlights one of the major causes physicians unnecessarily prescribing antibiotic drugs.

A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported that doctors wrote in one year 12 million antibiotic prescriptions for colds, bronchitis and other respiratory infections. But the study noted more than 90 percent of such infections are caused by viruses impervious to antibiotics. Another recent study concluded up to half of antibiotic prescriptions are unnecessary.

Despite the problem of physicians handing out antibiotics like candy, Mr. Levy curiously focuses attention on consumer use of antimicrobial products, including hand lotions, soaps and body washes. Used in hospitals for decades, there’s no question antimicrobials work. They’re no substitute for soap and water, but they can provide an extra margin of cleanliness for consumers.

Mr. Levy claims these products will lead to a public health crisis. He says the products kill the “good” germs on our bodies and allow “bad” germs to become resistant to the antimicrobial chemicals. Mr. Levy claims consumer use of antimicrobial products threatens the use of the same products in hospitals.

I have debated Mr. Levy twice on national television and one thing is clear: There is no scientific evidence antimicrobial products are causing or will cause a public health problem. Mr. Levy’s antimicrobial crusade is 100 percent theory and zero percent science.

There is one thing, though, that’s not clear from Mr. Levy’s media appearances his conflict of interest.

The media presents Mr. Levy purely as an academic researcher. What isn’t disclosed about this Tuft’s professor is that he is also the president of a Boston-based business, Paratek Pharmaceuticals.

The company’s investment prospectus says, “Paratek has led pioneering work in the field of disinfectants, discovering the target for and the mode of action of the common antibacterial chemical Triclosan” the primary chemical used in consumer antimicrobial products.

The prospectus also says, “Paratek is well-positioned to develop products to serve this non-hospital consumer product market” that is, Paratek is poised to become a major competitor in the anti-microbial soap market.

Paratek is no small concern. The company has a deal involving other antibiotic resistance research worth up to $95 million with pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome PLC. involving other antibiotic resistance research.

Is Mr. Levy trashing existing anti-microbial products so he can market his own? A visibly stunned Mr. Levy denied the conflict of interest when I confronted him recently on CNN’s “Talk Back Live” television program.

MSNBC news staff said it had difficulty convincing Mr. Levy to appear with me later that night. Convinced to appear, he dodged my question but did not deny his conflict of interest.

We have been fighting germs since Louis Pasteur developed the germ theory of disease in 1864, enjoying tremendous success. Now we need to solve the problem of antibiotic resistance. We also need to disinfect the current debate by knowing who’s who and who gains what from the ever-present alarmism.

Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer, adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of junkscience.com.