The Third Man: How are we entwined with antimicrobials today?

Please note this blog contains spoilers


By Vinesh Patel


In the world of film – as in the world of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) – perhaps not all is as it first seems. If you had told me, “Let’s see a black and white thriller from 1949” a month ago, I may not have jumped at the opportunity. Equally though, if you had asked me a year ago what antibiotics are used for in the USA, I may not have included, “helping animals grow”.


The Third Man was screened Friday 17 November, by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s AMR centre – with free popcorn to boot! At first the plot may leave you thinking of who Anna really is, why Holly Martins would fall for her and why people have feelings of attachment the way they do, today or in 1940s Vienna. But delve deeper and perhaps the issue is really about power, and even how power is intertwined with antimicrobials. Harry Lime was interested in running illegal activities to earn money, and the most lucrative trade he settled on was diluting penicillin. The consequence of Holly seeing children debilitated by infections treated with this weak antibiotic was the key to Lime’s downfall.


After the screening, a panel discussion carried on the engrossing pattern of the film. In perhaps a more scientific form of learning, they covered audience questions ranging from what the right language is for AMR, to how patients approach GPs and even whether antibiotic adherence in the UK will do much to halt AMR’s rise worldwide.


The panel included Ross Macfarlane from the Wellcome Collection, who described how the advent of mass-produced penicillin brought with it interesting plans, such as penicillin flavoured ice cream! Dr. Laura Shallcross, NIHR clinical scientist from University College London, discussed the challenge of clinical decision making when deciding whether to prescribe antibiotics, while the Chair Ms. Madlen Davies from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism discussed underrepresented news stories such as how AMR is already halting some transplant surgeries in Italy.


By the end of the evening, I suspect most of us left with as many questions as answers. Yet ultimately, this reality serves as a challenge that today’s generations of researchers are called to live up to. To this end, Dr. Clare Chandler, Co-Director of the AMR Centre, unveiled the Anti-microbials in Society (AMIS) hub – a ground breaking international group of researchers examining how antimicrobials fit in to society.


Sir Alexander Fleming foresaw the limitations of his momentous discovery of penicillin in 1945. So perhaps the most surprising thing about AMR is that it isn’t a surprise. What is intriguing though, is our response to it. I am reminded that like many issues today, with AMR we need to look at the reality behind the first impression in order to meet the challenges before us.


Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant,” Sir Alexander Fleming, 1945.