A member of the fungi kingdom commonly found in our bodies, our food, and even harnessed by humans for its fermentation properties in beer and bread—this season's super bug isn't really a bug at all but rather a deadly adaptive new species of yeast that's "behaving like bacterium" and has scientists scratching their heads.
According to a frightening new piece in Wired, the new yeast was first discovered and named by microbiologists Kazuo Satoh and Koichi Makimura in the oozing ear infection of a 70-year-old woman in Tokyo, Japan in 2009. Candida auris as it's called (named for the Latin word for “ear”) is so easily transmitted that one lead researcher called it “more infectious than Ebola” at the 20th Congress of the International Society for Human and Animal Mycology in Amsterdam last week.
That researcher was Dr. Tom Chiller, the chief of mycotic diseases at the CDC, who recently told Wired:
This bug is the most difficult we’ve ever seen.
Around roughly the same time as the Japanese woman was being treated for the newly discovered fungal ear infection, two South Koreans fell ill with the new yeast, a one-year-old and a 74-year-old; neither survived. As Wired points out, "up to 60 percent of infected patients died."
When it comes to comparisons between C. auris and Ebola, Dr. Chiller says about the new yeast:
It’s much harder to kill.
The biggest issue with this strain of yeast is that it's a kind of cross-species Frankenstein, not behaving like a yeast at all but more like a bacterial superbug.
As Wired breaks it down, yeasts typically populate warm, damp places in the body, only to overgrow when a system is out of balance. You can see examples of this with Candida albicans, the fungus responsible for thrush and vaginal yeast infections when the immune system takes a hit. In cases like these, the yeast only infects the subject in which it resides—but not so with C. auris.
That's because according to Wired, C. auris:
...has developed the ability to survive on cool external skin and cold inorganic surfaces, which allows it to linger on the hands of healthcare workers and on the doorknobs and counters and computer keys of a hospital room. With that assist, it can travel from its original host to new victims, passing from person to person in outbreaks that last for weeks or months.
And that ability to linger and to travel and infect new hosts like a virus or bacterium, along with the fact that it IS indeed a fungus and NOT a bacterium, is what makes C. auris such a threat. That's because there are very few drugs approved for treating fungal infections.
If it wasn't so scary, this would be amazing. All these strains arising in different places all at once.— Jackson (@jacksonzombie69) July 15, 2018
In fact, according to Wired there are:
...only three classes of several drugs each, compared to a dozen classes and hundreds of antibiotics for bacteria. And this yeast was already showing resistance to first-choice antifungals, a family of compounds given orally called azoles.
And the back-up drug of choice called amphotericin:
is IV-only, and also so toxic—its severe fever-and-chills reactions have been dubbed 'shake and bake'—that doctors try to avoid it whenever possible. That left only one set of drugs available, a new IV-only class called echinocandins.
Candida auris is scary because certain strains of this yeast are insensitive to ALL three classes of antifungal drugs - azoles, echinocandins and polyenes. Research into drug resistance mechanisms & novel drug development focused on C. auris are likely to be hot many years! https://t.co/rt0gKrhcYp— Danish Khan (@danishjmk) July 15, 2018
Realizing how devastating a C. auris outbreak could be, Wired reports that:
...the CDC warned of its global rise in June 2016 but that didn't stop at least 340 cases from popping up in the U.S. as of May 30.
Which is why Wired wrote about this Franken-yeast in the first place, because at its heart, it's a medical technology issue—one that they say:
As the foes continue to evolve, medicine needs both new tech, and surprisingly old techniques, to fight its microbial wars.