We must learn from Covid to avert an antibiotic resistance pandemic
Unlike Coronavirus, we have a chance to solve antibiotic resistance before it spirals out of control.
Pandemics are the last thing any of us want to think about with Christmas around the corner and the threat of the new Omicron variant in the news. But what if we had had a proper run-up to Covid-19 and a 10-year warning bell that it was coming? How would we have reacted and what would we have done to prevent, mitigate and beat the virus?
This isn’t a hypothetical: antibiotic resistance is happening now, with bacteria gradually evolving to beat even our best, most powerful antibiotics. We were warned in 1945 by Alexander Fleming about the dangers of misusing penicillin and the ability of microbes to become resistant. We are now living that reality.
What does this mean for you and me? I want to tell you about a mother, named Helen. Shortly after giving birth, when her baby was just six weeks old, Helen developed mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue. She soon developed flu like symptoms and a GP prescribed her an oral antibiotic.
But the infection was resistant to antibiotics and her symptoms got worse. She could barely hold her baby and was rushed to A&E, where she was eventually told she had developed sepsis. Luckily, it was caught early, and she recovered – but the story could have ended very differently. Sepsis causes 48,000 deaths in the UK a year.
Left unchecked, antibiotic resistance could kill many more people than Covid, and we will have no excuse for failing to act this time
This could happen to many more of us if we do not put in place a proper plan to fight antibiotic resistance. The numbers show 10 million lives will be lost annually by 2050 – more than all deaths from cancer. We take antibiotics for granted. Without them, even the most routine surgery becomes more high risk, organ transplants become more challenging, and a grazed knee could end up in a hospital visit.
The difference between coronavirus and antibiotic resistance? We know this antibiotic pandemic is coming and that we can do something about it if we work together and put a plan in place.
At this summer’s G7 summit, the UK government bought forward plans for world leaders to work together to find a solution to this impending crisis. At home, the NHS is trialling a new method for paying pharmaceutical companies who invest in research for antibiotics to be used as a last line of defence.
All these efforts are welcome, but they do not go far enough or fast enough in the face of the health crisis we face. Antibiotics aren’t like the coronavirus vaccine – scientists do not have a bank of research they can quickly use as a basis for a breakthrough.
We need a coordinated approach to solve this crisis. Often the cost researching and developing a new antibiotic outweighs the return, which impacts future research. Pharmaceutical companies currently have no incentive to develop new antibiotics which may be seldom used, even though what we want them to develop is antibiotics that will be used sparingly as a last line of defence.
This isn’t like coronavirus, where vaccines are going to be used at huge volumes; this is like insurance that we hope we will never use.
The UK is a world leader in the important debate around antibiotic resistance, but we can still do much more.
This time we have been warned of a danger that is already happening and will, without question, get worse. Left unchecked, antibiotic resistance could kill many more people than Covid, and we will have no excuse for failing to act this time.
This is a point I will be making today in a Westminster Hall debate. I want us to learn from coronavirus and make the most of the head-start we have on the next pandemic.
Kevin Hollinrake is the Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton.
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