An illustration of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae, CRE. (CDC/Reuters)

The Obama administration wants to double the amount of federal funding dedicated to combating antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a mounting problem that causes an estimated 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths annually in the United States.

President Obama will ask Congress for the $1.2 billion as part of his annual budget request, scheduled to be unveiled next week, White House officials said.

The funding would be used to speed development of antibiotics and diagnostic tools, improve surveillance for “superbugs,” and better prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant microbes in hospitals and other health-care settings.

The proposal comes several months after Obama released a five-year plan to curb antibiotic resistance and directed federal agencies to significantly ramp up their efforts to deal with the growing threat, saying it was necessary “to better protect our children and grandchildren from the reemergence of diseases and infections that the world conquered decades ago.”

Scientists, doctors and other public health officials have increasingly warned that if antibiotic resistance were to continue at the current rate, routine infections eventually could become life-threatening. Common modern surgeries, such as knee replacements and organ transplants, could again become precarious. Vulnerable hospital patients and nursing-home residents could be at especially high risk for contracting deadly infections.

An overuse of antibiotics has led to the emergence of superbugs, disease-causing microbes that are becoming increasingly unaffected by even the most powerful drugs.

“If we continue along the line of more and more microbes becoming antibiotic-resistant, we could be faced with a situation where we have untreatable infections,” said Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. “Talk about setting back the clock. That’s bad news.”

A large chunk of the funding the administration is seeking, about $650 million, would go to the NIH and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority to expand development of antibacterial drugs and diagnostics, officials said.

They pointed to the recent discovery of teixobactin, an antibiotic derived from an organism found in soil, as an example of why such publicly funded research is critical. Largely funded by the NIH, teixobactin killed an array of microbes in mice studies without the germs becoming resistant to it. Although unproven in human trials, it has raised hopes as one of the most promising antibiotic discoveries in decades.

“That was a long shot, but it worked,” Fauci said.

He said the government must play a significant role in developing antibiotics, given the lack of economic incentives for pharmaceutical companies to invest in such treatments. Unlike blockbuster drugs that could be taken by millions of people for years, antibiotics are typically taken only for a week or two and lose their effectiveness the more they are used. That reduces companies’ financial reward in developing them.

The president also will seek more than $280 million for CDC-led efforts to curb the overprescribing of antibiotics and to better track outbreaks of drug-resistant infections. An additional $47 million would go to the Food and Drug Administration to evaluate new drugs and monitor the use of antibiotics in livestock.

The Agriculture Department itself would receive an additional $77 million, in part, to help develop alternatives to the antibiotics used in farm animals, which account for the vast majority of antibiotics sold each year in the United States.

The Defense Department and the Department of Veterans Affairs would receive $75 million and $85 million, respectively, to focus on reducing antibiotic-resistent infections in health care settings such as VA hospitals.