WHO: World is running out of antibiotics to stop superbugs

Patient and nurse in hospital
Drugs currently in the clinical pipelines are modifications of existing classes of antibiotics and are only short-term solutions. (Getty/monkeybusinessimages)

A new report from the World Health Organization shows a serious lack of new antibiotics under development to combat the growing threat of drug-resistant superbugs.

The research finds few potential treatment options for deadly superbugs including drug-resistant tuberculosis, which kills around 250,000 people each year. The drugs currently in the clinical pipelines are modifications of existing classes of antibiotics and are only short-term solutions.

"Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously jeopardize progress in modern medicine," Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO, said in an announcement. "There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including TB, otherwise we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives from minor surgery."

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In addition to multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, WHO has identified 12 classes of priority pathogen—some of them causing common infections such as pneumonia or urinary tract infections—that are increasingly resistant to existing antibiotics and urgently in need of new treatments.

Of the 51 new antibiotics and biologicals in clinical development to treat priority antibiotic-resistant pathogens, WHO said only eight are innovative treatments that will add value to the current antibiotic treatment arsenal. This means clinicians don’t have enough treatment options for drug-resistant bacteria, including Acinetobacter and Enterobacteriaceae (such as Klebsiella and E.coli), which can cause severe and often deadly infections that pose a particular threat in hospitals and nursing homes.

"Pharmaceutical companies and researchers must urgently focus on new antibiotics against certain types of extremely serious infections that can kill patients in a matter of days because we have no line of defense," said Suzanne Hill, M.D., director of the Department of Essential Medicines at WHO.

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To counter this threat, WHO and the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative (DNDi) set up the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership. Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, South Africa, Switzerland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Wellcome Trust have pledged more than €56 million or $67 million in U.S. dollars for this work. But more money is needed to fund research for new antituberculosis medicines, the WHO noted.

However, new antibiotics won’t be enough to combat antimicrobial resistance, the organization noted. WHO said it is working to improve infection prevention and control and to foster appropriate use of existing and future antibiotics. It is also developing guidance for the responsible use of antibiotics in the human, animal and agricultural sectors.