Kiwi scientists make breakthrough in fighting world's deadliest infectious disease, tuberculosis

A New Zealand-based team of scientists have made a major breakthrough in fighting a deadly pandemic - but not the one you're thinking of. This one's actually worse. 

Despite the emergence of COVID-19, tuberculosis is still the number one most deadly infectious disease worldwide.

"It might surprise you to know that in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, there were more people who died worldwide from tuberculosis than COVID-19," University of Otago biochemistry professor Kurt Krause told The AM Show on Thursday. "It's still out there, it's big and it's a huge global problem."

Tuberculosis, also known as TB, kills about 1.5 million people every year. Last year it's estimated another 500,000 on top of that lost their lives to the curable bacterial infection due to disruption caused by new kid on the block, COVID-19. There is a vaccine - developed a century ago - but it's only moderately effective in children and doesn't really work in adults.

Most cases nowadays occur in India, Indonesia, China, Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and South Africa. 

Treatment is arduous and lengthy.

"You've got to take these drugs for six months," said Dr Krause. "There's no good TB vaccine, and TB has eluded creating a good vaccine for decades now, so we're stuck with treatment." 

Many patients don't complete it due to the cost or side effects, and in some cases the bacteria develop resistance. 

But that could be about to change. Dr Krause's team has found a potential pathway to developing a cure that only takes two to four weeks. They've figured out the atomic structure of a protein that helps the TB bacteria breathe in low-oxygen conditions, opening the door to new treatments which target this protein. 

"We know this will work based on working on the TB bacterium in the test tube."

It's been six years of "hard slog" to reach this point, Dr Krause said, and there's still a long way to go. But the end result could save millions of lives a year.

"A third of the world's population is thought to be infected with the tuberculosis bacteria - there's about 6 million cases a year and 1-2  million people die. COVID has of course captivated us for the last couple of years, but this would be almost on par with COVID in terms of the immediate impact, and then long-term impact, it's actually a bigger deal than COVID."