For the first time, a drug-resistant hospital superbug has been found in the wild—on an isolated beach in the Andaman Islands. The organism has been in hospitals for about a decade, but its origin remains "a medical mystery," said Dr. Arturo Casadevall of Johns Hopkins, who wrote an editorial that ran with the study Tuesday in the journal mBio. He called the new findings "a very important part of the puzzle." An Australian scientist has called the deadly superbugs a greater threat to humans than COVID-19, the Guardian reports. Candida auris had never been found in a natural environment before, but experts including Casadevall had wondered whether it had adapted in such places to higher temperatures driven by climate change enough to successfully jump to humans. Usually, per Live Science, human body temperature is too high to accommodate fungi.
To test that theory, experts analyzed soil and water samples from eight sites around the islands, a tropical archipelago between India and Myanmar. The organism showed up in samples from a salt marsh wetland rarely visited by humans and a beach that sometimes is. The beach version was multidrug resistant and a closer relation to strains found in hospitals than the marsh version. The findings don't mean that the microbe originated in the islands; it could have been brought by people or ocean currents, per Live Science. If scientists demonstrate that it originated in a natural environment and that global warming helped its jump to humans, others might be able to do the same thing. "If this idea gets validated … we need to start mapping out more of these pathogens that are out there so we don't get surprised," Casadevall said—which is what happened with the coronavirus. (An MIT team reported a breakthrough in the quest for an antibiotic that can handle superbugs.)