Superbug Bulletin #11: It’s time to combat the silent pandemic

Covid-19 has taken more than 3 million lives since last year, including more than half a million right here in the United States. Thankfully, the extraordinary efforts of the world’s medical researchers, private companies, non-profits, and governments are helping to end this global health emergency. It’s time to apply the same intensity to combatting the “silent pandemic” of antimicrobial-resistant bacteria and fungi.
In the years ahead, the crisis of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) could prove deadlier than the Covid-19 pandemic. Yet, even though the dangers of AMR have been well-understood for years and the threat is already present, the response to this catastrophic threat has been hampered by a lack of urgency, a shortage of innovation, and major structural failures in the antibiotics market.
None of these challenges are insurmountable. But in order to contain — and ultimately defeat — the threat of AMR, the world will need to attack the problem with the same determination we have seen in the Covid-19 response.

A Tale of Two Pandemics

Each of the three million-plus lives lost to Covid-19 is a tragedy. And that figure would be far larger today were it not for the lightning-fast global response to the crisis.
In the weeks after the new coronavirus was first identified, governments around the world implemented unprecedented policy responses. The biopharmaceutical sector went to work developing multiple new vaccines and therapies. The United States government alone committed nearly $20 billion to accelerating these medical breakthroughs through Operation Warp Speed. And new global norms of mask-wearing, social distancing, and regular hand-washing took hold.
Compare this to the AMR crisis, which scientists have warned about for decades, and which was with us long before Covid-19 emerged. By one estimate, antibiotic-resistant infections kill as many as 162,000 Americans each year. Global deaths now total at least 700,000 a year. And if current trends continue, annual AMR fatalities could reach 10 million by 2050 — a death toll that significantly exceeds Covid-19.
Just like Covid-19, AMR has a dramatic impact on our daily lives and it will only get worse over time. Without effective antibiotics, everything from routine surgeries like cesarean sections and hip replacements to life-saving treatments and procedures like chemotherapy, organ transplants, and open-heart surgery would become extremely risky due to the prevalence of deadly, untreatable infections. In this scenario, even minor, superficial injuries could lead to life-threatening infections.
And while one could drastically minimize the chance of contracting Covid-19 by staying inside and avoiding contact with others, in a world without antibiotics, the threat of acquiring a deadly bacterial or fungal infection would be near-impossible to avoid. No person, no matter how cautious or healthy, would be safe.
Given these risks, one would expect the response to the AMR crisis to be at least as serious as the reaction to Covid-19. But unlike the coronavirus pandemic, the threat of AMR has grown slowly over the course of years. As a result, it has yet to inspire the same sense of urgency as Covid-19. And the problems preventing us from overcoming this challenge have yet to be solved.
That needs to change. Fortunately, there are a number of promising strategies for addressing the threat posed by drug-resistant superbugs. What’s lacking are the resources and policy solutions to put these strategies into action.

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