Since March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has been ramping up its warnings about the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria — especially carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), a dangerous “superbug” that could potentially kill half of all people who contract it. Addressing this impending global health threat requires creating robust new antibiotics that can kill superbugs, and that’s part of the reason that the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) launched a “10×20” initiative to develop 10 new bacteria-busting drugs by the year 2020. Unfortunately, scientists now say they are likely to fall far short of that goal, raising concerns that global health institutions won’t be ready for a worldwide bacterial epidemic if it were to strike.
In modern times, antibiotics are largely taken for granted. But this complacent public attitude ignores the reality that such treatments require years — if not decades — to develop. Antibiotics also have limited shelf lives, since bacteria evolve and adapt to them. That wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that there have been zero major new antibiotics developed in the last 25 years, leaving the global community susceptible to the rise of drug-resistant bacteria:
While a new infectious disease has been discovered nearly every year over the past 30 years, there have been no new antibiotics since 1987, leaving our armory nearly empty as diseases become resistant to existing drugs.
“The barriers to approval of nine additional antibiotics by 2020 seem insurmountable,” said Henry Chambers, chair of IDSA’s Antimicrobial Resistance Committee (ARC).
“We’re losing ground because we are not developing new drugs in pace with superbugs’ ability to develop resistance to them. We’re on the precipice of returning to the dark days before antibiotics enabled safer surgery, chemotherapy and the care of premature infants. We’re all at risk,” said Helen Boucher, from IDSA.
The most frightening aspect of all this is the fact that there’s no way to tell when a disastrous bacteria epidemic might strike — or whether we will be ready for it when it does. There are only seven drugs in development for treating superbugs like CRE, and there is no guarantee that any of them will prove effective or be approved for general use before it’s too late. Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, described antibiotic resistance as a public health “ticking time bomb,” and warned that the world population could be looking at a future in which seven percent of all hospital admissions are taking place due to drug resistant infection. “Antibiotics are losing their effectiveness at a rate that is both alarming and irreversible — similar to global warming,” she told British newspaper The Independent.
There are few policy actions that would successfully address this crisis. Mostly, Congress’ options are limited to increasing funding for research organizations, putting pressure on scientists to act on the urgency of the moment, and making sure that emergency response institutions are properly funded, well-prepared, and closely regulated. The Senate has taken action on some of these measures in the wake of public health crises such as Hurricane Sandy. But ultimately, it’s up to the efforts of scientists and major pharmaceutical companies to invest in the type of research that could eventually protect the world from a disaster.