How can the UK handle the future threat of pandemics?
Following a virtual parliamentary event hosted by Pfizer UK and the UK Sepsis Trust on ‘Future Infection Threats’, Dr Ron Daniels, Executive Director of the UK Sepsis Trust and Susan Rienow, Head of Pfizer UK’s Hospital Business Unit, explain why there is an urgent need for political action and call for a national strategy on global infection threats.
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While the world is currently preoccupied by coronavirus, the threat of bacteria – or more specifically drug resistant bacteria – still looms large.
Having seen one example of the vast impact that an unrivalled infection can have on society, there is now the opportunity to learn from these unprecedented times to limit and mitigate against future infection threats.
The scale of the issue
Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is rooted in the over-reliance on and misuse of antibiotics and antimicrobial agents, which allow bacteria and other pathogens to evolve resistance. These become ineffective in the treatment of infections, particularly in the face of the so-called ‘superbugs’.
Since Lord O’Neill’s widely discussed report in 2016, we often hear of a future world where drug resistant bacteria have made our ability to perform routine surgeries, like hip replacements and caesarean sections, a thing of the past and may even limit the use of chemotherapy (1).
AMR is referred to as a silent pandemic estimated to kill 700,000 people each year worldwide. Research shows that a continued rise in resistance by 2050 would lead to 10 million people dying every year and a reduction of 2% to 3.5% in Gross Domestic Product (GDP). It would cost the world up to 100 trillion USD (1).
Sepsis and AMR
AMR can jeopardise the clinical management of sepsis, a life-threatening condition, because antibiotic treatment is crucially required at early onset. Right now, sepsis kills estimated 1 in 5 people globally (2).
Sepsis arises when the body’s response to infection causes organ damage - it’s always triggered by an infection, but the overreaction of the immune system is what makes sepsis deadly.
The mainstay of management of sepsis is controlling the source of infection, and it’s essential we have functioning antibiotics to do this.
The coronavirus crisis has shown what it may mean to have no vaccine or medicine to tackle an infection threat and serves as a powerful reminder for what we could face without effective antimicrobials.
Opportunity to learn from 2020
Many organisations, including Pfizer, have committed to tackling the COVID-19 crisis head-on, on multiple fronts, and ensuring no stone is left unturned as we explore every option to help protect our communities from further infection as quickly and as safely as possible.
The global collaboration, speed and innovation we have seen in response to COVID-19 could become a roadmap for how we can work together to address AMR to strengthen research and development, public education, policy and media engagement, and build resilient healthcare systems.
We need to harness learning from 2020 to build resilience into healthcare systems against both contagious and non-contagious infections. It’s critical we do this while being mindful of the threat of antimicrobial resistance, and public health policy decisions should embrace all infection management strategies together.
Urgent policy action needed
Therefore, we are calling for a Government-backed national strategy on tackling the threat from infections, including infection prevention, rapid treatment of time-critical infection and sepsis, AMR, and pandemic preparedness.
This needs to focus on the threat of all present and perceived future infections together, and to champion this, the UK’s Health Ministers need to prioritise transparency in emergency preparedness. This requires a multi-disciplinary and multi-sectoral effort to draw up robust plans for future threats.
The UK also has a real opportunity to further its position as a world leader by making decisive changes to strengthen the antibiotic and vaccine pipeline by incentivising R&D.
The time has come for holistic infections management strategies and systems design.
Infection is a complex problem with no single solution, and tackling it requires action across all of society – we all have a part to play, and collaboration across all sectors is absolutely key.
To address AMR and the threat of infection, not only should antibiotics be used when necessary to preserve their effectiveness, but infection prevention, the antimicrobial pipeline, and prioritisation of management of time-critical infection and sepsis also all play a critical role.
We need to build on the entrepreneurial mindset demonstrated over these past few months, to ensure the UK is stronger than ever to tackle future infection threats.
Dr Ron Daniels is Executive Director of the UK Sepsis Trust, and Susan Rienow is Head of Pfizer UK’s Hospital Business Unit.
1) Lord O Neil. Review on antimicrobial resistance. Tackling drug-resistant infections globally. Final report and recommendations. 2016.
2) WHO. WHO calls for global action on sepsis – cause of 1 in 5 deaths worldwide. 2020. Available here.
Date of prep: October 2020