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How the PASTEUR Act can heal the antibiotics crisis

This scanning electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows rod-shaped Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria.
Janice Haney Carr/CDC via AP
This scanning electron microscope image made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows rod-shaped Pseudomonas aeruginosa bacteria. According to a report published Thursday, Jan. 20, 2022, in the medical journal Lancet, antibiotic-resistant germs caused more than 1.2 million deaths globally in one year, according to new research that suggests that so-called “superbugs” have joined the ranks of the world’s leading infectious disease killers.

It is easy to forget that not long ago, many of our most common infections were untreatable. Then antibiotics came along and, today, most reoccurring infections can be easily treated with them. Many common forms of bacterial pneumonia can usually be treated with a Z-pack. And oral antibiotics are typically the first treatment for urinary tract infections that lead to 8.1 million U.S. health care visits annually.

Unfortunately, the very use of these medicines causes the germs they treat to change in ways that make the medicines ineffective. Recent overuse of antibiotics is accelerating the rise of drug-resistant infections — often referred to as “superbugs.” While these superbugs were on the decline for years, the pandemic set us back. 

Between March and October 2020, nearly 80 percent of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 were given antibiotics to treat potential secondary bacterial infections.

This spike in antibiotic use, paired with hospitals stretched too thin to maintain antibiotic stewardship practices meant to ensure the medicines are used appropriately, caused increased incidences of these superbugs. Also known as antimicrobial resistance, the incidence of infections resistant to treatment rose dramatically over the last several years, according to research by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To make matters worse, not only have these infections become more common, they have also become more deadly. In 2020 alone, antimicrobial resistance caused a 15 percent increase in hospitalizations and deaths. 

Everyone has a part to play to stay one step ahead of superbugs, as I know from leading the Pharmaceutical Research Manufacturers of America. Physicians should follow appropriate prescribing guidelines, such as those from the Infectious Disease Society of America. They should also be aware of local patterns of antimicrobial resistance that could impact their patients. Patients should confirm antibiotics are truly warranted if they are prescribed and finish their course of treatments. That’s because, if stopped too early, the remaining bacteria can become resistant to the medicine aimed at fighting it.

Biopharmaceutical companies are doing their part as well. For our part, the biopharmaceutical industry launched the AMR Action Fund with a $1 billion industry investment to fund companies developing new antimicrobial medicines. And hospitals and physicians participate in stewardship programs that promote the appropriate use of antibiotics. 

Unfortunately, finding a successful new antibiotic does not always guarantee a company will recoup the critical costs associated with its development. Many large and small biotech companies have declared bankruptcy or exited the antibiotic market due to the financial risks associated with developing these medicines and the fact they must be used in the most limited set of circumstances in order to slow the inevitable process that leads to antimicrobial resistance. 

That’s where policymakers can play a critical role in fixing this problem. The PASTEUR Act, which has broad bipartisan support, would incentivize companies to develop new antimicrobial and antifungal medicines by offering “subscription” contracts to manufacturers to provide full access to these medicines in federal health care programs. The legislation will provide more years of life to patients who would otherwise face serious disease or death from infections today considered treatable.  

Antibiotic and antifungal medicines are critical to the everyday practice of medicine, yet many existing medicines might soon no longer be able to stop these superbugs.

If Congress fails to enact the PASTEUR Act, routine medical care, preparedness for future public health emergencies, and people’s lives are at significant risk.

We don’t need superheroes to fight superbugs. We just need the right policies in place to make sure our everyday heroes — the doctors and nurses who treat patients every day — have the right tools to fight infections. 

Stephen J. Ubl is president and chief executive officer of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which represents America’s leading biopharmaceutical research companies.

Tags Antimicrobial resistance Coronavirus COVID-19 PASTEUR Act Politics of the United States Superbugs

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