Bacterial Immunity, the Market, and Emergence

Posted on August 14, 2010 by


I just read worrisome news reported by the medical journal Lancet Infectious Diseases and picked up by the British newspaper The Guardian. In its opinion the era of antibiotics is coming to a close, and coming fairly rapidly. In The Guardian Sarah Boseley described work by Prof. Tim Walsh who had discovered a gene which passes easily between “bacteria called enterobacteriaceae such as E. coli and Klebsiella pneumoniae and makes them resistant to almost all of the powerful, last-line group of antibiotics called carbapenems.” Boseley writes that yesterday’s Lancet paper “revealed that NDM 1 is widespread in India and has arrived here as a result of global travel and medical tourism for, among other things, transplants, pregnancy care and cosmetic surgery.” Walsh’s paper may be read here.

Some bacteria have developed resistance and even immunity to every antibiotic we have, and nothing new is coming down the pipeline. While the potential human price to be paid for a world without effective antibiotics is extremely high, I want to focus on two other issues of importance to emergent order theorists as we seek to better understand this perspective on society and the world.

First is the issue of how market incentives relate to processes in other emergent phenomena. Disease causing bacteria are a threat to human health, but they are also a threat to animals. Factory ‘farms’ sacrifice the natural protections available in traditional agriculture as well as the wild, in order to ‘efficiently’ produce vast amounts of meat and eggs. They have used antibiotics to prevent the otherwise inevitable rise of serious epidemics among huge numbers of animals crowded together. This gives them a competitive edge over other ways of producing meat and eggs.

The more bacteria are exposed to antibiotics the sooner they develop immunities to them. By selling antibiotics to agriculture, we get cheaper meat and eggs at the risk of more human deaths sooner. While worries about this risk are nothing new, the alliance of corporate agriculture with the FDA has prevented effective oversight. Apparently these particular chickens are about to come home to roost, big time.

The issue for emergent order theorists is how to harmonize various social emergent processes, such as the market order, with other emergent processes, such as evolutionary adaptation, so as to benefit human well-being. Simply chanting about the “miracle of the market” does not do it. The market is one emergent process among many, even in the human world, and works with signals (prices) and values (maximizing money income) completely disconnected from natural processes. The market is like fire, a wonderful servant and a fearful master.

The Lancet piece makes an additional point of relevance to us. Antibiotics are not the most profitable product because not only do they have a relatively brief life, in addition, if successful they then are discontinued by that particular patient. Not as much money is put into their development as is the case with potentially more profitable investments. This is market logic and it will not go away within the corporate sector.

Here is a disconnect between market logic and human well-being, a disconnect we already see regarding alleged herbal remedies. Because herbs cannot be patented, little money is spent researching them. The more a product in high demand can be kept under single control, the more money can be made from it. Garlic does not fall into that category.

What is most profitable and what contributes most to human well-being are not utterly disconnected, but neither are they closely entwined. Other means of supporting research in areas where the profit motive is inadequate for the job may need to be developed, through increased research funded by other means. As inspiration for this we need only remember that the Salk Vaccine, which ended the threat of polio, was developed and disseminated with no concern at all for making a profit. Neither its discoverer, Dr. Jonas Salk, nor his funder, The March of Dimes, was profit oriented.

We have a rich field of research before us, far wider than has been usually acknowledged.

Posted in: Uncategorized