If antibiotics stop working

Attack of the superbugs: July 2041

How the world belatedly responded to antimicrobial resistance. An imagined scenario from 2041

AT THE CHAN ZUCKERBERG HOSPITAL in New York, Emma Jones beams a weak smile at her newborn son, cradled in her husband’s arms. Ms Jones is recovering from a severe bacterial infection that she contracted during her Caesarean section. The infection had begun to shut down her organs; doctors put her in a coma and hooked her up to a breathing machine. “We didn’t think she’d make it,” says Rosa Velasquez, an infectious-disease specialist at the hospital. Ms Jones is lucky. She is one of a handful of people to have been treated with parvomycin, the first new antibiotic to become available since 2024. The few older antibiotics that are still in use today work only rarely. In 2040 antibiotic-resistant bacteria killed nearly 400,000 people in Europe and America—more than seven times as many as in 2015. In Africa and Asia, drug-resistant tuberculosis alone now kills nearly 2m people a year, ten times more than in the 2010s.

In Western countries the rise in deadly infections has been primarily in hospitals. Back when antibiotics still worked, they were used preventively in almost all operations. In 2015 surgical-wound infections occurred in less than 5% of cases for most types of operations in Europe; by 2040 the rate had leapt to nearly 30% for some operations. Caesarean sections, which at their peak made up one-third of births in America in 2019, are now carried out only when there is no other option.

Some hospitals no longer perform elective surgeries, such as hip and knee replacements, because so few patients are willing to take the risk of post-operative infection. But…