Antibiotics: a global emergency

Of 51 new antibiotics and “biologicals” in development, only eight would add value to the current arsenal

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that growing resistance to antibiotics is a “global health emergency”. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said that growing resistance to antibiotics is a “global health emergency”. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA Wire

 

The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) latest warning that “antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency” is one of the starkest it has ever issued on the future wellbeing of humankind. It was prompted by a study of antibiotics in the production pipeline. The consequences go far beyond the immediate difficulty in treating nasty infections that thrive in spite of the most powerful of antibiotics.

Growing resistance to drugs that fight infections could “seriously jeopardise” progress made in modern medicine, WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned on foot of its evaluation. The problem is compounded by a lack of new drugs in development. If antibiotics lose their effectiveness, key medical procedures – including gut surgery; caesarean sections, joint replacements and chemotherapy – could become too dangerous to perform. Around 700,000 people around the world die annually due to drug-resistant infections including drug-resistant tuberculosis, HIV and malaria. A range of other infections are asserting themselves in hospital settings due to microbial resistance. If effective action is not taken, it is estimated that drug-resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year by 2050. The WHO found few potential treatment options for those antibiotic-resistant infections.

Of 51 new antibiotics and “biologicals” in development, only eight were deemed to be treatments that will add value to the current arsenal. There is a need for more investment in basic science, drug discovery and clinical development, it suggests. Otherwise we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives with minor surgery. The problem with new antibiotics is they usually require a 10-year lead-in time. So solving today’s crisis tomorrow is impossible.

Endeavour beyond finding new antibiotics is equally necessary, including more tempered use in animals and adoption of alternatives to antibiotics. Much more concerted action on a global scale is needed too if we are to have any chance of successfully staying ahead of superbugs.