WHO urges quick development of antibiotics to combat superbugs, warns options are running out

Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) bacteria © Reuters

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urgently called for the creation of new drugs to tackle 12 superbugs which do not respond to antibiotics, warning that drug resistance is on the rise.

The “priority pathogens” list released by the organization on Monday, catalogs 12 families of bacteria which poses the greatest threat to human health.

The list specifically highlights “gram-negative bacteria,” which are resistant to multiple antibiotics. Such bacteria have built-in capabilities to find new ways to resist treatment and can pass along genetic material which allows other bacteria to also become drug resistant.

“Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time,” Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO’s assistant director-general for Health Systems and Innovation, said.

The UN health body divided the list into three categories, according to the urgency of need for new antibiotics. Those categories are critical, high, and medium priority.

Those which made the critical priority list include bacteria which pose particular threats to hospitals, nursing homes, and patients who rely on ventilators and blood catheters.

They include Acinetobacter, Pseudomonas and various Enterobacteriaceae (including Klebsiella, E. coli, Serratia, and Proteus) and can “cause severe and often deadly infections such as bloodstream infections and pneumonia,” WHO wrote.

The high and medium priority categories include other increasingly drug resistant bacteria which cause more common diseases including gonorrhea and food poisoning caused by salmonella.

The criteria for selecting the pathogens included how deadly its infections are; whether their treatment requires long hospital stays; how frequently they are resistant to existing antibiotics when people and communities are infected; how easily they spread between animals, from animals to humans, and from person to person; whether they can be prevented (e.g. through good hygiene and vaccination); how many treatment options are available; and whether new antibiotics to treat them are already in the research and development phase.

“New antibiotics targeting this priority list of pathogens will help to reduce deaths due to resistant infections around the world,” Professor Evelina Tacconelli, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen and a contributor to the development of the list, said. “Waiting any longer will cause further public health problems and dramatically impact on patient care.”

The WHO appeal comes as G20 health experts prepare to meet in Berlin this week, with German health minister Hermann Gröhe calling the WHO’s list an “important new tool to secure and guide research and development related to new antibiotics.” Gröhe said the experts will discuss the fight against antimicrobial resistance during the gathering.

The call for new antibiotics comes just four months after Australian researchers made an offbeat suggestion that the answer to combating superbugs may not lie within antibiotics, but rather in Tasmanian devil’s milk.

Superbugs have long been a concern of the medical community, with a World Bank report last year warning that human antibiotic resistance combined with the rise of superbugs could potentially kill 10 million people by 2050 and devastate the economies of some countries. (RT)