We’re Running Out of New Antibiotics, WHO Warns
Experts with the World Health Organization have issued a dire warning about our never-ending battle against dangerous bacteria: The pipeline of new antibiotics, particularly those that can handle drug-resistant bacteria, is running dry. Only around two dozen candidates meant to treat important infections are currently thought to be in clinical trials, with even fewer potential drugs that can reliably take on superbugs in development.
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The new WHO report was presented at a special online session of the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases earlier this month by Valeria Gigante, team leader of the WHO’s Antimicrobial Resistance Division. It’s based on a review published by the WHO last year.
According to the report, only 12 new antibiotics entered the market from 2017 to 2021. Another 27 experimental antibiotics targeted against “critical” bacterial infections—such as Acinetobacter baumannii and Pseudomonas aeruginosa—are in clinical development. But only six of these drugs are considered different enough from existing antibiotics that they could be used against drug-resistant bacteria without concern. And only four are designed with a truly unique mechanism of action. While some of these drugs are in late-stage trials and may soon reach the public, others could still fail along the way, leaving us with even fewer options.
Bacteria are constantly evolving, and many of those that can cause human disease have steadily adapted to our existing antibiotics. Oftentimes, the tricks that bacteria learn (and pass on to other bacteria) to evade one antibiotic can be used to defeat other drugs belonging to the same class. So, without a constant supply of truly novel antibiotics or other treatment strategies, these bacteria will quickly outmatch whatever we send their way.
We’re already seeing cases of bacterial infections practically resistant to all available drugs, and more will inevitably follow. Even today, as many as 5 million deaths worldwide every year are thought to be linked to drug-resistant infections. Within the next 30 years, superbugs could kill more people than cancer.
“The rapid increase of multidrug-resistant infections worldwide is concerning. Time is running out for us to bring new antibiotics to market and combat this urgent threat to public health,” Gigante said in her prepared remarks. “Without immediate action, we risk returning to a pre-antibiotic era where common infections become deadly.”
There have been some potential rays of light on the horizon. Scientists are working on new vaccines for common drug-resistant infections, such as gonorrhea or diarrhea-causing Shigella. Existing nonprofit programs like CARB-X have shown some promise in incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to reenter antibiotic development. And lawmakers in the U.S. are hoping to soon pass the Pasteur Act, a bill intended to further speed up the pipeline. But it’s likely that much more effort will be needed to forestall the antibiotic apocalypse.
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