In recent decades, a multidrug-resistant “super fungus” with a mysterious backstory has sprung up, causing thousands of odd infections around the world. It now appears that some pandemic-ridden hospitals, packed full of COVID-19 patients with dwindling immune systems, have provided fertile ground for the newly emerged “super fungus” to take root.
But even beyond the threat it poses to COVID-19 patients, the yeast in question — Candida auris — could pose a very real problem for global health in the near future.
As reported in the Journal of Fungi, scientists led by Arnaldo Colombo, head of the Special Mycology Laboratory at the Federal University of São Paulo, have recently documented the rise of C. auris cases in the Brazilian city of Salvador. The researchers explain that the first two cases were found in COVID-19 patients staying at a hospital in Salvador around December 2020. Since then, a surprisingly high number of hospitalized patients have become infected with the incredibly rare fungi.
“Nine other C. auris patients have since been diagnosed at the same hospital, some colonized [with the fungus in their organism but not doing harm] and others infected,” Professor Colombo told Agência FAPESP.
“No other cases have been reported in Brazil, but there are grounds for concern.”
“The species quickly become resistant to multiple drugs and isn’t very sensitive to the disinfectants used by hospitals and clinics,” Colombo said. “As a result, it’s able to persist in hospitals, where it colonizes health workers and ends up infecting patients with severe COVID-19 and other long-stay critical patients.”
C. auris was first described in 2009 after it was discovered in the ear canal of a 70-year-old woman in Tokyo. However, research indicates that multidrug-resistant C. auris managed to simultaneously emerge in Pakistan, India, South Africa, and Venezuela around this time. Over the past decade, the mysterious yeast has been reported in patients from dozens of countries around the world, including the US, and infected over 4,700 people.
Its name derives from the Latin word for ear, auri, although the fungi can cause invasive infections around the body, including bloodstream infections and wound infections. Infections typically occur in hospitalized patients and are thought to prey on people with weakened immune systems, such as those suffering from COVID-19. It’s estimated that more than one in three patients with invasive C. auris infection dies.
The microorganism is dubbed a “super fungus” because many C. auris infections have been found to be resistant to all three main classes of antifungal medications, making it extremely tough to treat. As such, the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) has defined it as a "serious global health threat."
No one is quite sure how this super fungus jumped onto the scene so quickly. Certainly, the overuse of antifungal medication likely played a role, just as we see with the overprescription of antibiotics fueling the rise of drug-resistant bacteria. Some researchers speculate that other factors might have helped to give the yeast an extra foot-up onto the world stage too. For one, the prolific use of certain fungicides in agriculture is thought to be a big factor. Others suspect the super fungus might also be a product of the warming temperatures sparked by climate change.
Wherever it came from, it appears that C. auris is set to become an increasing burden for global healthcare in the years and decades to come.