It all started with a small cut on Rick Bright’s thumb, leaving what looked like a small white pimple on his finger.
But what appeared to be a small blemish instead turned out to be multidrug resistant MRSA, a staph infection.
After numerous hospital visits and seven different antibiotics, Mr. Bright was able to treat his infection, sparing him from losing his thumb two years ago.
He is among the millions of people who become infected with drug-resistant bacteria each year.
Known as “superbugs,” drug-resistant bacteria are on track to kill 10 million people a year by 2050, outpacing cancer deaths, say health officials, who are searching for solutions to the growing threat.
“This threat is getting worse and we need to do something now,” Mr. Bright, director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, said Thursday at a press conference at the Renaissance Hotel.
He said every single national health security threat leads to secondary bacterial infections.
“This is the core of our national health security and our national biodefense program as well as public health to be able to ensure that we have drugs that will work to protect the world from these infections and companies that are in existence to make those drugs when and where we need them and add to the supply,” Mr. Bright told the audience.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that drug-resistant bacteria infect more than 2 million people and kill at least 23,000 each year. The CDC has described those estimates, based on a 2013 report, as conservative.
An estimate by Washington University in St. Louis places the number of people in the U.S. killed by drug-resistant bacterial infections between 153,000 to 162,000 in 2010, about sevenfold the CDC estimate.
The university researchers, who published their estimate in late 2018, said the true burden of multidrug resistant bacterial infections remains uncertain due to insufficient national reporting.
“The use of antimicrobials sort of underpins everything we do in modern medicine,” said Greg Frank, director of Working to Fight AMR (Anti-Microbial Resistance). “The ability to treat and prevent infections makes possible the medical innovations that we’ve seen in the last 50 years.”
“I think that erosion of our arsenal of antimicrobials puts a lot of medical innovation at risk,” Mr. Frank said.
Scientists haven’t discovered or made available for treatment a new class of antibiotics since the 1980s, according to Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for the United Kingdom’s Department of Health and Social Care. He acknowledged that a new antibiotic might be available on the U.S. market soon.
Yet the incentive for developing new antibiotics is not favorable, with health officials and drug companies noting high production costs and a lagging market.
Those market challenges forced biotech startup Achaogen to file for bankruptcy in April, despite securing FDA approval for a new antibiotic.
Only three of the top 50 drug companies are working on cures to combat drug-resistant bacteria, reports the Pew Charitable Trusts. A reported 39 companies have developing antibiotics in clinical trials.
Mr. Frank said not nearly enough medicines are being developed.
“Everything we develop, I think it’s a safe assumption that bacteria will find a way to evade it at some point or another,” he said. “And that’s why I think it’s important we always have a really diverse and robust pipeline of antibiotics and other kinds of technology under development in any case.”
He mentioned practicing stewardship and using antibiotics only when absolutely necessary, relying on nonantibiotic treatments — such as vaccines, phage therapy and monoclonal antibodies — and addressing the market challenges of antibiotic development as potential solutions.
Other industry stakeholders have suggested a proposed policy to encourage investment in antibiotic development, pointing to the DISARM Act that provides incentives for companies to create antimicrobial drugs. The proposal was introduced in the House and the Senate earlier this year.
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