Not enough new antibiotics are being developed to combat lethal drug resistance, warns WHO

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Antimicrobial resistance a ‘global health emergency’ that ‘will seriously jeopardise progress in modern medicine’, says head of international organisation.

Not enough new antibiotics are being developed to combat the threat of deadly drug-resistant infections, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned.

The vast majority of the drugs being developed are modifications to existing kinds of antibiotics, which only provide short-term solutions, the health organisation said in a new report.

Commenting on the findings, the head of the international body described antibiotic resistance as a “global health emergency” that would take medicine back to the period before the Second World War unless new classes of antibiotics were developed as a matter of urgency.

Health experts have previously warned that resistance to antimicrobials could pose a bigger threat to humankind than cancer.

Around 700,000 people die every year as a result of drug-resistant infections including drug-resistant tuberculosis (TB), HIV and malaria.

If no action is taken, drug-resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year by 2050, according to some estimates.

Of 51 new antibiotics and biologicals currently in clinical development to treat the most dangerous antibiotic resistant diseases, WHO said only eight are classed as innovative treatments that will contribute meaningfully towards the pool of drugs.

“Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously jeopardise progress in modern medicine,” Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO said.

“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.”

The report found very few potential treatment options for the most deadly antibiotic-resistant infections, including drug-resistant tuberculosis, which kills around 250,000 people a year.

There was a “serious lack” of treatments for strains of tuberculosis and other pathogens such as E-coli, which prove particularly deadly to those with weakened immune systems in hospitals or 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 defence,” said Dr Suzanne Hill, director of the Department of Essential Medicines at the WHO.

A WHO and Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative earlier this month set up the Global Antibiotic Research and Development Partnership to help find groundbreaking new antibiotics.

Germany, South Africa, Switzerland and the United Kingdom were among countries that pledged more than 56 million euros (£50m) towards the work.

Dr Mario Raviglione, director of the WHO Global Tuberculosis Programme, said: “Research for tuberculosis is seriously underfunded, with only two new antibiotics for treatment of drug-resistant tuberculosis having reached the market in over 70 years.

“If we are to end tuberculosis, more than $800m per year is urgently needed to fund research for new antituberculosis medicines.”

But WHO warned that new drugs alone would not be enough to prevent drug-resistant pathogens developing. New guidance for the use of antibiotics on people, animals and agriculture was also needed, according to the international body.