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Twilight of the Antibiotics Era: A New Challenge for Humanity

May 26, 19:54 UTC+3
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Antibiotics are becoming less effective as bacteria get better at resisting them. The development of new solutions requires large-scale investments, which pharmaceutical companies are reluctant to provide. However, antibiotic-resistant infections claim tens of thousands of lives every year.

  • According to the 2015 OECD statistics, up to 50% of infections in the G7 countries can no longer be treated by first-line antibiotics; these infections increase the risk of complications or even fatality 2–3 times and may cause an estimated 700,000 deaths globally per year.
  • In February 2017, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published a list of 12 bacteria that are highly resistant to antibiotics.
  • In September 2016, a US citizen died from a superbug resistant to every known antibiotic.
  • Jim O'Neill, an economist, says that if no new antibiotics are discovered and no effective alternatives are found, infections will start killing as many as 10 million people a year in 30 years’ time.
  • In 2017, St. Petersburg researchers found three dangerous bacteria from the WHO list in 15 Russian cities, including Moscow and St Petersburg.

Antibiotics are getting weaker for a number of reasons.

  • According to the WHO, one such reason is their misuse by both doctors and self-treating patients alike.
  • Antibiotics are ubiquitous in agriculture, where they are used to treat and prevent diseases in animals, as well as to increase their mass. According to the 2016 investor coalition, the agriculture industry consumes around 50% and 80% of UK- and US-produced antibiotics, respectively.
  • Antibiotics are also subject to almost unregulated use in the production of soap and other personal hygiene and cleaning products. In 2017, the US has banned such products, in particular antibacterial soap.
  • Since 1987, no new class of antibiotics has been discovered.

What is done to address the problem?

  • In 2015, the WHO member states adopted the Global Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance, which envisioned development of the Global Antimicrobial Resistance Surveillance System (GLASS).
  • Some businesses are starting to take steps with a view to phase out antibiotics from production. For example, McDonald’s plans to stop using them by 2018.
  • The Russian Federal Service for Surveillance in Healthcare (Roszdravnadzor) introduced new regulations on antibiotics sales starting from March 2017, which will fine both pharmacies and dispensing chemists for selling the respective products without prescription.
  • The Russian Ministry of Health is planning to arrange training for medical professionals and to supply lab equipment to identify the level of antibiotics resistance as well as to collect statistics on drug tolerance.

However, with no new antibiotics classes there will be no progress.

  • Back in 2009, the Infectious Diseases Society of America unveiled the 10 x '20 Initiative aimed at developing ten new antibiotics by 2020.
  • WHO and DNDi (Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative), are working closely with pharmaceutical and biotech companies, research organisations, civil society and health authorities.
  • In February 2016, the US called on the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) to establish a Biopharmaceutical Accelerator in order to spur investment in new antibiotics.

The medical community is researching a substitute.

  • Potential alternatives include antibodies, probiotics and vaccines, bacteriophages (natural and synthesised), lysine, immunostimulants and various peptides. Expert estimates put the cost of this programme somewhere between the Large Hadron Collider and the International Space Station.
  • Russian scientists are also exploring the possible applications of bacteriophages, which are protein-based viruses capable of killing bacteria; the research was started back in the Soviet times and now only needs better funding.
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