Obama ratchets up fight against killer bacteria

President Obama moved via executive action Thursday to quell the rise of deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria blamed for tens of thousands of deaths a year in the United States.

Obama signed an order establishing a new interagency task force and directed its members to deliver a plan by Feb. 15 to combat the threat of so-called “super bugs,” bacteria that have built up a resistance to antibiotics commonly prescribed to people and animals.

Top U.S. health officials called the rise of the bacteria an “urgent health threat” with major implications for economic and national security.

Antibiotic-resistant infections are already linked to 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses in the United States each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Estimates of the economic impact vary, but have put the price tag as high as $20 billion in excess direct healthcare costs, and as much as $35 billion in lost productivity from hospitalizations and sick days.

And the problem is worsening, officials said.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, cited a “potential for a runaway spread of infections” he said “could undermine social stability.”

“This represents a major elevation of the issue,” he said of Thursday’s action.

The president’s directive creates the Task Force for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, co-chaired by the secretaries of Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

The group is charged with implementing a plan to track and prevent the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, promote better practices for the use of current drugs and push for a new generation of antibiotic medications.

To that end, the White House on Thursday announced a $20 million prize “to facilitate the development of rapid, point-of-care diagnostic tests for healthcare providers to identify highly resistant bacterial infections.”

The added incentive and the timeframe given to the task force indicate the urgency with which the administration is acting, said Dr. Eric Lander, who co-chairs the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“This is a pretty tight timeline to now come up with a national game plan,” Lander said.

In formulating the action plan, the group will have at its disposal a report — to be released later Thursday — containing recommendations from the council, which began studying the issue last year.

While generally supportive of the movement on the issue, some groups say the administration is not going far enough to combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

A coalition of public health groups known as Keep Antibiotics Working said the council's report “falls dangerously short” of outlining a sufficient strategy to prevent the rise of super bugs.

In particular, the group argues that the government’s approach to removing antibiotics in animal feed.

In December, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled a plan to phase out the use of antimicrobials for the purpose of fattening chickens, pigs or other animals destined for human consumption. But the plan relies in part on voluntary industry cooperation, and advocates argue the government’s efforts are lagging behind even some industry players.

For instance, Perdue Foods announced this month that it has removed all antibiotics from its chicken hatcheries, a step that goes beyond any restrictions now on the books.

"Instead of recommending that FDA move to address overuse of antibiotics for disease prevention and the farming practices that create the need for them, the report recommends a wait and see attitude on reducing antibiotic use in food animals,” the public health coalition said in a statement.