Preparing for future pandemics requires effective antibiotics

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Since the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 began spreading rapidly in early 2020, it has illustrated the global devastation that pandemics can inflict and the critical need for stronger public health preparedness. As leaders look to ways to prevent and better respond to future pandemics, they must recognize the critical role antibiotics play in protecting health and safety.

Antibiotics do not treat viral infections such as COVID-19, but these drugs have played a vital role in protecting patients with the virus, especially those requiring hospitalization and intensive care such as intubation, ventilation mechanical or other procedures that carry an increased risk of secondary infection. This request came at a time when certain bacteria, called superbugs, are becoming more resistant to available antibiotics and the pipeline to produce new ones is not working as it should.

Effective antibiotics have therefore been more critical than ever to controlling infection in the daily delivery of care in hospitals and other health care facilities that have been chronically overcrowded and underfunded for the past two years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pandemic has led to a significant increase in hospital-acquired infections in 2020 after years of decline.

These infections included increasing rates of methicillin-resistant infections Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteremia, which causes dangerous and difficult to treat staph infections due to high levels of resistance to many antibiotics commonly used to treat these infections.

Additionally, a CDC investigation in a December 2020 Superbug epidemic in a New Jersey COVID-19 hospital unit pointed out “that multidrug-resistant organisms can spread rapidly in hospitals experiencing increases in COVID-19 cases and cause serious infections.” The flood of cases that have overwhelmed hospital resources and exposed patients to these life-threatening infections has only compounded the problem.

Growing resistance to the antibiotics needed to treat these infections often results in complications in care and poorer patient outcomes. Increasingly, patients can survive the medical condition that landed them in hospital to die from a drug-resistant superbug. Pew research showed high rates of antibiotic use among hospitalized COVID-19 patients, which likely accelerated the emergence and spread of superbugs.

Ultimately, any public health emergency is likely to strain hospitals and healthcare systems and increase the risk of drug-resistant infections. Without effective antibiotics, these superbugs will only exacerbate the deadly consequences of future pandemics.

Unfortunately, according to the latest report from the World Health Organization To analyse, medical professionals and healthcare providers are rapidly running out of effective antibiotics, and there are far too few new drugs in development with the potential to treat increasingly resistant bacterial infections. This stagnant pipeline is largely due to market disruption for these drugs and a lack of economic incentives. Already, the drugs available cannot meet the needs of patients. According to a recent study in The Lancetantibiotic-resistant superbugs were responsible for more deaths worldwide in 2019 than HIV or malaria, and the problem is only getting worse.

Boosting antibiotic development must be a priority for policymakers, researchers and industry leaders in their efforts to be better prepared for future pandemics. Congress can take significant steps to accelerate antibiotic innovation by passing the PASTEUR Act, a bipartisan bill designed to reinvigorate antibiotic development and promote the appropriate use of these lifesaving drugs. By changing how the U.S. government pays for antibiotics, the PASTEUR Act would encourage the development of urgently needed new drugs, especially those that can address unmet patient needs.

Going forward, healthcare leaders, researchers and others must focus on the fundamental importance of antibiotics, both in the daily practice of modern medicine and in combating future pandemics. It starts with tackling the broken market in antibiotics and ensuring these essential medicines are on the shelves when they are desperately needed.

David Hyun leads The Pew Charitable Trusts Antibiotic Resistance Project.

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