Some bacteria in south Asia equipped with a gene that renders the current generation of antibiotics useless has begun to spread around the globe. The situation raises concerns about a novel wave of drug-resistant “superbugs” that travelers could spread world-wide.

Researchers have found the presence of a new gene called NDM-1 that gives certain kinds of bacteria the ability to produce a chemical that cause many antibiotics useless. The newly equipped superbugs were found in 180 patient samples from Pakistan and India, as well as in the U.K. in samples from patients who had had surgery in India, according to the study in the journal Lancet.
In the last three to four years, this kind of resistance has “increased dramatically in India and continues to increase,” said Walsh, a professor of medical microbiology and antimicrobial resistance at Cardiff University in Wales. “The possibility of this becoming a global problem very quickly is immense.”

MRSA has already raised fears about drug-resistant bacteria, spurring a lineup of biotech companies to start work on a new generation of bacteria-fighters. But this new superbug belongs to a separate family from the MRSA strain, living in the gut and swiftly jumping to other bacteria that it comes in contact with. And the appearance of this new superbug is likely to fuel R&D programs into a new and more effective generation of antibiotics.

Health officials for now are spreading an alert to watch out for ailing travelers who have been hospitalized recently in India and Pakistan. “The possibility of this becoming a global problem very quickly is immense,” says Timothy Walsh, who was the lead researcher of a new study on the NDM-1 gene.