New study highlights urgent need for new antibiotics

According to a recent study published in The Lancetnearly 1.3 million people worldwide were killed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, the so-called superbugs, in 2019. Those are more deaths per year than from HIV or malaria. This new data underscores the already grim danger of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a threat that public health and national security experts have been sounding the alarm bells for years, and underscores the urgent need for action.

Also of concern, additional data indicates that the superbug threat has intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a significant increase in nosocomial infections in 2020, many of which were caused by antibiotic resistant bacteria such as methicillin resistance Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). And, Pew’s own research showed high rates of antibiotic use among hospitalized COVID-19 patients, which may have accelerated the emergence and spread of superbugs.

These and other data confirm what public health experts have long known: the threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria is growing every day, and the need for new antibiotics has never been more urgent. Yet there are still too few antibiotics in development and, as the authors of the Lancet emphasize the study concerning the search for new types of these drugs: “[I]Investments have been modest compared to those devoted to other public health issues with similar or lesser impact.

The bipartisan Pioneering Antimicrobial Subscriptions to End Rising Resistance Act, or PASTEUR Act, provides an opportunity for Congress to immediately take meaningful action on this issue. Introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, the bill would help reinvigorate the pipeline of new antibiotics by providing significant government contracts to develop and ensure access to high-priority drugs. This approach pays for new drugs based on their public health value rather than the number of doses sold, addressing a fundamental problem that has led to a stalled antibiotic market. It is also consistent with the type of policy that many authorities reports, commissionsand experts have identified as critical to reviving a chronically insufficient antibiotic pipeline.

Moreover, the Pasteur Law would promote the appropriate use of these life-saving drugs by including financial support for hospital antibiotic stewardship programs, which ensure that these drugs are used only when needed and at the right dose and for the duration, to help slow the spread of resistance and preserve the effectiveness of existing treatments and new antibiotics. This kind of support is especially essential for small rural hospitals, which often have limited resources.

As more pharmaceutical and biotech companies abandon antibiotic research and development and the death toll from superbugs rises, there is no time to waste. The PASTEUR law would reinvigorate innovation of the types of new antibiotics that today are essential for patient protection and critical to public health and biosafety preparedness. Congress should pass this legislation as soon as possible.

David Hyun leads Pew’s Antibiotic Resistance Project.