Lawmakers fear arrival of 'unstoppable' superbugs

Lawmakers fear arrival of 'unstoppable' superbugs
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Lawmakers are expressing growing alarm that a "superbug" crisis could strike the United States, with once treatable infections becoming lethal.

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on Tuesday grilled public health officials on how to best target funds at home and abroad against the threat.

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The hearing came just weeks after a Pennsylvania woman became the first patient in America with MCR-1, a highly-resistant gene discovered in China last year.

“It signals the potential arrival of an unstoppable superbug,” said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.) on Tuesday.

“The fear is not if, but when, this gene transfers and merges with another superbug that is resistant to all other antibiotics,” added Upton, the chairman of the full Energy and Commerce Committee. “This would create the nightmare scenario of a bacterial infection that cannot be stopped with any known antibiotic treatment.”

Adding to those worries, researchers have also detected the gene in two pig samples, sparking fears of a new wave of dangerous, hard-to-treat infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says drug-resistant bacteria is already responsible for making 2 million Americans per year sick.

Health officials at the hearing warned against the overuse of antibiotics.

A CDC study published earlier this years said that at least 30 percent of antibiotic prescriptions written in the U.S. are unnecessary.  

The agency has a "Get Smart About Antibiotics" campaign to reduce those numbers. But both lawmakers and health officials said more needs to be done to scale back the use of unnecessary antibiotics.

But officials also pressed for new advanced drugs. They warned that while antibiotic resistance has grown, development of new, life-saving drugs has not.

Dr. Janet Woodcock, the director of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research at the Food and Drug Administration, called the pipeline for new antimicrobial drugs “very fragile.”

“I think we need to be very concerned, because it’s not the work of a year to catch up, it’s the work of decades,” Woodcock said.

Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) also noted that as of March 2016, only 37 new antibiotics were in development. Murphy said more needed to be done to incentivize developing antibiotics.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) agreed that more must be done to encourage development of new drugs.

“If this is a worldwide public health issue, and the reason why we cannot make progress is because our industry partners are unwilling … because there’s not enough money, then it seems to me exactly the space that government needs to step in,” she said.