The world could have a deadly and expensive problem on its hands if the growing fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria stays on the same track, according to a dire new warning.
The so-called superbugs, if left unchecked, could result in 10 million deaths each year by 2050 — more than the number of people killed by cancer — and put a $100 trillion dent in the global economy, according to a new report commissioned by United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron. The analysis, which projects a 2 percent to 3.5 percent drop in global economic output, comes from RAND Europe and KPMG.
Overuse and abuse of antibiotics has helped build up bacterial resistance making it hard to fight off many common illnesses. Superbugs already cause 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the United States alone each year.
The report, authored by former Goldman Sachs executive Jim O'Neill, says the anticipated effects of the worst-case scenario could be understated. Failure to contain the antimicrobial resistance could undermine a heavy reliance on prophylactic antibiotics provided during surgery. "In a world where antibiotics do not work, this measure would become largely useless and surgery would become far more dangerous," the report states.
As my colleaue Ariana Eunjung Cha wrote last month, there are some hopeful signs of progress in the fight again super bugs. A Dutch biotech company last year reported early success in a new treatment to cure MRSA, which is especially resistant to antibiotics. Fecal transplants, which are pretty much exactly what they sound like, have shown success in treating Clostridium difficile, an internal bacterial infection found in about 500,000 Americans each year.
The health community, at home and abroad, has been warning about this superbug threat for years. And earlier this year, the World Health Organization labeled it a "global epidemic."
One of the world's largest drugmakers, Merck, announced plans earlier this week for an $8.4 billion acquisition of Cubist Pharmaceuticals, one of the leaders in the effort to develop superbug-fighting drugs. USAID also on Thursday announced a $30 million partnership with Janssen Therapeutics to focus on fighting multi drug-resistant tuberculosis.
But a panel advising President Obama warned in September that there isn't a robust enough pipeline of new drugs to replace the ones now rendered ineffective by antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics generally provide low returns on investment, so they're not an especially attractive area for research and development.
Obama has ordered a national action plan by February on how to combat this growing threat. Needless to say, the stakes are extremely high.