Research led by the University of Queensland in Australia has uncovered antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Middle East that avoid detection by cloaking themselves with genetic material.

The “phantom” superbugs belong to a particularly deadly class of antibiotic-resistant bacteria called carbapenem resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which kill up to half of infected patients.

In 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that CRE superbugs are on the rise in US hospitals.

By cloaking themselves, the newly discovered phantom versions of CRE place the population at increased risk of deadly infections, say the researchers, who report their findings in the journal Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy.

They warn the hard-to-detect superbugs may quickly spread globally, given that the Middle East is a popular medical tourism destination and its highly paid job market attracts workers from all over the world.

Hosam Mamoon Zowawi, a researcher in the Centre for Clinical Research at the University of Queensland (UQ) says they found the phantom superbug during a region-wide collaborative study on antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates.

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By cloaking themselves, the newly discovered phantom versions of CRE place the population at increased risk of deadly infections.

He says the phantom superbug was present in samples from all the GCC states, and “not only were the bacteria widespread, but they were found to be carrying genetic material that empowers them to resist antibiotics and avoid detection in routine laboratory testing. This means patients are not being treated quickly with the right antibiotics, allowing the bacteria time to spread.”

The team also found several clusters of the phantom superbug in different patients from the same hospitals, suggesting infection is spreading from patient to patient.

They hope their findings will encourage labs to bring in more specific techniques to detect phantom superbugs. This will be essential to minimize spread, says Mr. Zowawi.

The team is now working on new tools that can rapidly identify the phantom superbug and other drug-resistant bacteria.

Mr. Zowawi says the intention is to advance surveillance of superbugs by reducing turnaround times for test results and to help clinicians “apply targeted treatment and implement infection control precautions sooner.”

Meanwhile, Medical News Today recently reported how scientists discovered that an anti-biofilm molecule may help fight superbugs. Writing in the journal PLOS Pathogens, researchers in Canada describe how they discovered that a small molecule could help prevent bacteria – including some superbugs – from forming biofilms, which are responsible for at least 65% of all human infections.