• Antimicrobial resistance is a top 10 global public health threat, according to the World Health Organization.
  • Risks arise when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change over time and don’t respond to the drugs designed to kill them.
  • Medicine overuse – in humans and agriculture – has exacerbated the problem.
  • Antimicrobial-resistant infections could cause 10 million deaths a year by 2050, according to the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance.
  • World Antimicrobial Awareness Week aims to promote action to limit the risks.
  • Misuse of antibiotics during the COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate resistance, the WHO says.

Superbugs. You’ve probably heard of them, but did you know they’re one of the biggest threats to global public health?

Left unchecked, these drug-resistant bugs could kill millions of people every year with the damage to health potentially dwarfing that of COVID-19, according to the AMR action fund.

That makes antimicrobial resistance, or AMR, a top 10 global public health threat, according to the World Health Organization, which is raising awareness and promoting ways forward with World Antimicrobial Awareness Week.

Risks arise when bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites change over time and don’t respond to the drugs that have been developed to keep them in check.

Strong resistance

Resistance is increasing, partly because antimicrobials have been overused since their discovery, and partly because poor sanitation and hygiene allow resistant strains to spread.

In farming, antibiotics are often given to animals to boost their growth or to prevent diseases from spreading when livestock are kept in cramped conditions.

COVID-19 has added another layer, with antibiotics being prescribed to people around the world, even though it is caused by a virus, not by a bacteria, the WHO says.

AMR Action Fund bacteria viruses fungi drug antimicrobial resistance global public health threat
Deaths could increase rapidly if no action is taken.
Image: AMR Action Fund

Tackling resistance matters because the problem has the potential to spiral, with the AMR Action Fund estimating that deaths from antibiotic-resistant infections could rise to around 10 million a year by 2050, up from around 700,000 in 2019. And it could cost the global economy as much as $100 trillion between now and 2050, according to the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, IFPMA.

“The coronavirus has really driven home how vulnerable we are as a society to contagious diseases,” says Lars Rebien Sørensen, chairman of the Novo Nordisk Foundation, which helps fund the AMR Action Fund. “2,000 people die every day due to antimicrobial-resistant infections. Even if we start doing everything we can today, this number will increase before it will drop. If we fail to act, a catastrophe is looming.”

The WHO global action plan seeks to improve awareness of the issue, bolster research, improve sanitization, cut back excessive use of antimicrobial medicines in human and animal health and invest in new medicines to act against the superbugs.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about epidemics?

Epidemics are a huge threat to health and the economy: the vast spread of disease can literally destroy societies.

In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases and to enable access to them during outbreaks.

Our world needs stronger, unified responses to major health threats. By creating alliances and coalitions like CEPI, which involve expertise, funding and other support, we are able to collectively address the most pressing global health challenges.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum to tackle global health issues? Find out more here.

Prevention focus

At the moment, the bacteria are winning the race, morphing faster than drugs are being developed to counter them, the AMR Action Fund says. And that’s partly because of the poor business case: development costs cannot be covered through sales.

While pharmaceutical companies are racing to find a vaccine for COVID-19, research and development of new antibiotics has slowed, according to Pew research. Now the WHO is calling for a bold, unified agenda focused on prevention and finding new medicines.

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The WHO is calling for action to fill the gap.
Image: Pew Charitable Trusts Research

Seeking to redress this, the AMR Action Fund has raised $1 billion from major pharmaceutical companies to invest in biotech and plans to bring as many as four new antibiotics to patients by 2030.

“There is currently no viable market for the development of new antibiotics,” says Kasim Kutay, CEO of Novo Holdings, which administers the investment in the AMR Action Fund on behalf of the Novo Nordisk Foundation. “As a result, antibiotics that are in the early stages of development never reach patients because of a lack of funding for the later stages of clinical research. The AMR Action Fund is an important part of the solution to this.”

Until new antibiotics are found, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advocates good general health practices, like keeping your hands clean, getting vaccinated, only using antibiotics when they’re really needed, and preparing food in a hygienic way.

Even so, it’s likely to be a long battle.

“AMR is a complex problem that requires a united multisectoral approach,” the WHO says. “Greater innovation and investment is required in operational research, and in research and development of new antimicrobial medicines, vaccines, and diagnostic tools.”