The COVID-19 pandemic is providing a grim reminder of an unfortunate truism: Public health often does not receive the attention it deserves until a disaster hits.
We are already seeing the tangible ramifications of this reality, and it is imperative that we not only endure and survive the COVID-19 pandemic but also ensure that it becomes a watershed moment that changes our approach and commitment to public health for the better moving forward. Such a shift must make certain that our collective preparedness for future outbreaks and public health emergencies accounts for the growing threat posed by antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
That level of readiness remains a long way off. According to Pew’s most recent assessment of the antibiotic pipeline, far too few drugs are in development with even the potential to treat the most dangerous superbugs. And that is unlikely to change without meaningful government intervention to fix what has become a broken antibiotic market.
Effective antibiotics will help protect us from multidrug-resistant bacteria emerging in the future, and they also are essential now. Antibiotics are needed to protect COVID-19 patients who have weakened immune systems (and who may be on ventilators) and are therefore at risk for secondary bacterial infections. Likewise, antibiotics are also critical for patients fighting cancer, receiving dialysis, undergoing surgery, and requiring countless other medical treatments and procedures.
At the end of last year, I highlighted five key ways in which we can ensure that we have effective antibiotics, and they are more important now than ever:
- Reduce antibiotic use in human medicine.
- Improve animal antibiotic use.
- Fix the broken antibiotic market.
- Secure adequate funding for stewardship and innovation.
- Continue international focus and collaboration in the fight against antibiotic resistance.
Of course, each of these priorities is complex and multifaceted. And although I wish there were a simple or single way to ensure that antibiotics are never rendered ineffective, the truth is that the emergence of resistance is inevitable, so comprehensive, urgent action is needed on all of these fronts if we are going to stand a chance against this growing threat.
In the days, weeks, and months to come, as Congress considers additional action in the fight against COVID-19 and examines how the U.S. can be better prepared for emerging public health challenges, it is imperative that policymakers remember the fundamental importance of antibiotics. These lifesaving drugs not only help to protect patients during a pandemic, they also make possible modern medicine as we know it.
Kathy Talkington directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ antibiotic resistance project.