Lawmakers warn antibiotic-resistant infections could spur next pandemic

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) addresses reporters during a press conference on Thursday, July 15, 2021 to discuss the Child Tax Credit payments being sent out.
Greg Nash

Lawmakers on Tuesday warned that superbugs — microorganisms that have evolved to resist existing antibiotics — pose a looming public health threat that could spur the next pandemic if left unaddressed.   

Calling the coronavirus pandemic a wake-up call for the risk of widespread infections, Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Todd Young (R-Ind.), along with Reps. Drew Ferguson (R-Ga.) and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), introduced legislation in June to invest in preventative research and innovative drug production.  

“What we have difficulty imagining is what a world looks like when you have an infection, and there is no antibiotic and it’s widespread,” Bennet said Tuesday at The Hill’s Antibiotic Resistance: A Looming Public Health Crisis event. 

“The economic result of that could be catastrophic for the world. And then, obviously, the impact in terms of human life could be enormous,” he added.   

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2019 Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States report, at least 35,000 people die from the more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections that occur in the U.S. every year.  

The bipartisan Pasteur Act would incentivize development of antimicrobial drugs that target superbugs identified by the CDC.   

Co-sponsored in the House by 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, the bill would create a subscription model that offers antibiotic companies upfront payments in exchange for government access to innovative drugs they create to combat antibiotic-resistant infections.   

Medicare and Medicaid patients could then access those medications at no additional cost to the government.  

“I saw this very early on in my dental practice,” Ferguson told The Hill’s Bob Cusack during the event, which was sponsored by the Pew Charitable Trusts Antibiotic Resistance Project. 

“This is something that we found constantly — the evolution of bacteria that basically made it more and more difficult to treat very serious infections — and this is something that’s going to continue to be an issue going forward,” he said.  

Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said education is another crucial component of combating superbugs. She said government agencies have been issuing recommendations for health care providers on how to prescribe antibiotics to avoid misuse. 

“If we lost antibiotics, if they all became resistant to one thing or another, we would lose the ability to do chemotherapy, the ability to do some of these complex surgeries,” O’Connell said. “We’ve come so far in medicine, so it’s really important that we continue to invest in the antibiotic pipeline.” 

Bennet said he and his colleagues designed the legislation as a safety net for the small pharmaceutical companies that study antimicrobial resistance, many of which he said have filed for bankruptcy while working to develop revolutionary medications.  

More than 95 percent of antibiotics in development are being studied by small pharmaceutical companies, rather than by large firms, according to a 2021 Pew Charitable Trusts report on global antibiotic development.  

“Smaller drug companies, in particular, can know that they’re going to be able to stay in business while they work on something that may not be that important to us today, but it’s going to be very important to us tomorrow,” Bennet said.  

The $11 billion bill faces an uphill battle as lawmakers address more pressing economic challenges associated with COVID-19 recovery and the ongoing war in Ukraine, Bennet said. 

But Ferguson argued the future savings will outweigh the immediate cost.   

“We’re going to pay for this now, or we’re going to pay for it later,” Ferguson said. “And it’s always cheaper to do it on the front end and be in a preventive mode than it is in a reactionary mode in the middle of a disaster.” 

Tags anti-microbial resistance antibiotics Dawn O'Connell Drew Ferguson Drew Ferguson Michael Bennet Michael Bennet Mike Doyle Pandemic Todd Young

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