The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, but the next infectious disease emergency is already within view. More than three-quarters of American voters are concerned about the threat posed by antibiotic-resistant pathogens—so-called "superbugs"—according to a new national poll.
They're right to be alarmed. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has proven to be an unrelenting crisis. Each year, 700,000 people worldwide die from a drug-resistant infection. Here in the U.S., the annual death toll is at least 35,000, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It's no surprise, then, that policies that incentivize antibiotic development enjoy broad support across the country. By urgently enacting such reforms, it's clear that voters recognize how leaders in Washington can ward off a global health catastrophe.
Unfortunately, the threats from AMR will continue to rise without greater attention and investments in solutions. What is clear from our research is the coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency to the issue. Indeed, individuals who have been most affected by COVID-19 are the most likely to be worried about drug-resistant infections.
What these individuals recognize is that COVID-19 and AMR are connected health threats. Consider one recent study that found 10% of patients hospitalized for the novel coronavirus developed some form of secondary, bacterial infection. According to another analysis, half of those who died from the virus in Wuhan, China, had contracted a secondary bacterial infection.
The recent explosion of drug-resistant infections comes at a time of a staggering decline in antibiotic innovation. Between 1985 and 1999, the FDA approved 33 new antibiotics. That figure dropped to just 13 between 2000 and 2014.
Even more troubling is the fact that researchers haven't discovered a truly novel class of antibiotics in over three decades.
Our ability to prevent and cure infections is foundational to modern medicine; antibiotics are essential. The longer we rely on an antibiotic, the greater the likelihood bacteria develop resistance to it. And unless researchers start discovering and developing new antibiotics, the antibiotics we do have could stop working altogether in the near future.
Unfortunately, the economic barriers to antibiotic innovation are formidable. Antibiotics are almost always money-losing investments for the simple reason that they work best when used as scarcely as possible. Pharmaceutical companies can only risk these resources on medicines that stand a chance of turning a profit—or at least earning back their development costs.
Today, only three major pharmaceutical companies are actively pursuing antibiotic development. Meanwhile, antibiotics startups are routinely going out of business.
This isn't to say that inventing new antibiotics is impossible—only that the private sector can't do it alone. The federal government, healthcare providers and patients all also have a role to play in beating this threat. We need the federal government to act to help reshape the incentives of antibiotics research to encourage innovation, healthcare providers to help prevent infections and prescribe antibiotics responsibly, and patients to follow dosage guidelines when prescribed antibiotics and to practice prevention to avoid infections when possible.
Voters understand the need for action. More than three-quarters of the electorate recognizes that addressing the AMR threat will require an aggressive and collective effort to invent new antibiotics. And a variety of strategies—from public-private partnerships to direct government investment and cash incentives for antibiotic research—have the support of strong majorities of voters.
Lawmakers can answer these calls right away by pursuing AMR reforms. Our research found overwhelming support for policymakers who make developing new antibiotics a priority. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed that government, universities and drug companies should all work together to deal with AMR, and 65% would be more likely to support a political candidate who supports making the development of new antibiotics a priority.
Now that COVID-19 has drawn new attention to the dangers of AMR, lawmakers have a rare opportunity to help jump-start antibiotic development and start bending the curve on drug-resistant superbugs before it's too late—all of which has the strong support of likely voters.
Celinda Lake is president of Lake Research Partners. Ed Goeas is president and CEO of The Tarrance Group.