Issue No. 8: State of the Superbugs
This year, drug-resistant microbes, or “superbugs,” will kill as many as 160,000 Americans. And that toll will almost certainly grow in the years ahead, as these bacteria and fungi continue to evolve and become resistant to our dwindling arsenal of antimicrobials.
Disaster looms. In the relatively near future, many superbugs could become completely immune to even our strongest medicines. And for much of the past decade, scientists have struggled to attract funding for R&D projects focusing on antimicrobial resistance (AMR).
If doctors lose the ability to wipe out bacterial infections, chemotherapy and many common surgeries will become far more dangerous. Widespread, untreatable superbug infections could catapult us back into the medical dark ages.
Fortunately, there’s hope on the horizon. On July 9, more than 20 leading pharmaceutical companies — including Pfizer, Eli Lilly, and Merck — launched a $1 billion AMR Action Fund to help develop up to four new antibiotics in the next decade.
These companies — some of which had previously abandoned antibiotics development – formed the fund with input from the World Health Organization, the European Investment Bank, and the Wellcome Trust.
The AMR Action Fund’s July launch event featured speakers at the forefront of the fight against AMR, including Kevin Outterson, the director of CARB-X, Helen Boucher, chief of infectious diseases at Tufts Medical Center, and Senator Robert Casey (D-PA).
But while the fund will certainly kick-start antibiotic development, it won’t fix the broken market for antibiotics or replenish our dried-up antibiotics pipeline. To accomplish that, policymakers across the globe will need to step in.
The trouble with antibiotics
Every time people use antibiotics or other antimicrobials, some bacteria or fungi may survive. These surviving microbes then evolve and reproduce, eventually growing immune to the next antimicrobial treatment.
Superbugs already pose an enormous threat to public health. They infect at least 2.8 million Americans a year, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Worldwide, they kill 700,000 people a year, and could fell 10 million annually by 2050, according to a landmark 2014 report from the British government.
This staggering, and growing, death toll explains why infectious disease and public health experts have long called on policymakers to confront this crisis.
The response to COVID-19
COVID-19 provides a timely glimpse into how joint, targeted action between the public and private sectors can generate massive breakthroughs in global public health.
Before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March, the National Institutes of Health was looking into a COVID-19 vaccine and examining the outbreak in China. Once the pandemic hit our shores, the Trump administration launched Operation Warp Speed, an ambitious plan to deliver 300 million doses of a COVID-19 vaccine by January 2021. And the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will review data from vaccine trials on a rolling basis rather than at the end of each phase, saving critical months while upholding scientific standards.
On the private sector side, a biotech firm based in Massachusetts — Moderna — partnered with the NIH to start Phase I clinical trials of a vaccine just 42 days after learning the virus’ gene sequence.
Many other biopharmaceutical companies are quickly developing vaccines and therapeutics — and even evaluating whether current medicines can help address COVID-19.
Consider Remdesivir, California-based Gilead’s antiviral for Ebola. After clinical trials showed that Remdesivir could reduce COVID-19 hospital stays, the U.S. government issued an emergency use authorization for the drug.
As they work around the clock to develop treatments, private firms have promised to price any coronavirus vaccine at cost and work with governments of developing countries to make treatments widely available.
Global partnerships have also stepped up. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations raised $1.4 billion for vaccine research.
These joint efforts have drastically shortened the vaccine development timeline. Bringing a new vaccine to market typically takes over 10 years, but a COVID-19 vaccine could become available just 12-18 months following the initial outbreak of the virus.
Reaching this point has truly been a global effort, as a new visual in USA Today powerfully illustrates. The map — which pinpoints the corporations, government agencies, and non-profits working on vaccines — highlights efforts in the United States, Western Europe, China, Australia, Canada, and Israel.
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