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UK-China collaboration informs animal feed antibiotic ban

The resultsopens in new window of a UK-China antimicrobial research collaboration have been pivotal to informing a ban on the use of the antibiotic colistin as a feed additive for animals in China.

As of 1 November, the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture banned the use of the antibiotic colistin as a feed additive for animals. This decision was supported by the work of a UK-China research team led by Professor Jianzhong Shen of Beijing Advanced Innovation Center for Food Nutrition and Human Health, College of Veterinary Medicine, China Agricultural University, Beijing, China, in collaboration with Professor Timothy Walsh, School of Medicine, Cardiff University, UK and Dr Jian-Hua Liu of South China Agricultural University, Guangzhou, China.

In 2015opens in new window the team identified a gene called MCR-1 that allowed bacteria to survive colistin treatment in animals and humans in China. MCR-1 is a ‘mobile gene’ meaning it can be easily transferred to other bacteria, making them resistant too. The team identified the gene in a strain of bacteria called Escherichia coli that was found in pigs. This work was mainly funded by the National Key Basic Research Program of China and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, with additional support from the UK Medical Research Council (MRC).

Colistin is an important ‘last resort’ antibiotic, used to treat serious bacterial infections in humans resistant to other antibiotics. It is also used in animal feeds to help rear healthy animals. But widespread use of the antibiotic encourages the development, and spread, of resistance genes in animals, and subsequently humans, making them resistant to this potentially life-saving drug.

Following their discovery, the team worked with the Chinese Government to discuss the risks and impact of MCR-1 on both colistin use in animals, and humans in China. Newton funding secured in July helped the team to keep up the momentum of these discussions. On July 26, the Ministry of Agriculture released a formal announcementopens in new window regarding the ban of colistin as a growth promoter (feed additive) in animals in China.

The immediate implication of the ban is the withdrawal of more than 8,000 tonnes of colistin as a growth promoter from the Chinese veterinary sector, which will be replaced by other non-human antibiotics, supplemented by traditional Chinese medicines.

The European Medicines Agency has also taken a positive step to update its advice on reducing the use of colistin in European veterinary practices.

The team hope this swift action by the Chinese Government will reduce the spread of colistin-resistance and prolong the effectiveness of colistin as a vital treatment option for highly resistant bacteria.

Professor Jianzhong Shen said: “The antibiotic usage in food animals is indeed becoming a global issue associated with food safety and public health. All countries in the world should use antibiotics in animals more prudently and rationally. On the basis of the evaluation of risk assessments of such antibiotics, the Chinese Government worked promptly to remove colistin in the list of feed additives for the purpose of growth promotion. We suggested that our Government take the AMR problem very seriously and in this instance they responded very efficiently to tackle this issue.”

Professor Timothy Walsh said: “This is a remarkable example of how scientific discoveries can positively impact on animal and human populations. Great credit must go to those in the Chinese Ministries of Health and Agriculture for listening to our concerns and implementing this impressive outcome. In particular, Professors Shen and Wu were relentless in their negotiating. I hope and trust, following on from the UN declaration on antimicrobial resistance in September, that all other signatories will be as transparent and accountable, and tackle this globally pressing problem just as earnestly.”   

Dr Jonathan Pearce, Head of Infections and Immunity at the MRC, said: “Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) poses a global challenge to healthcare and agriculture. Our response to this challenge must span nations and disciplines. We congratulate Professors Shen and Walsh on their collaborative efforts in identifying a new mechanism by which resistance to colistin can arise and be transferred from animals to man. We also applaud the Chinese Government for responding to this new threat by restricting the use of colistin in animal feed. By pooling our research efforts, we can develop a deeper understanding of the drivers of AMR. Through collaboration with society, industry and policy makers, we can apply this knowledge to turn the tide against the AMR threat.”

Frazer Macdonald, Head of Asia-Pacific, Newton Fund, said: “We are pleased to be supporting and funding international research partnerships in the vital field of AMR through RCUK. AMR is recognised as a huge global health challenge. Through collaboration and matched funding, the Newton Fund – working with its partner countries China, India and South Africa – is backing further all-important AMR research.”