Olympic Games Shine Light on Need for New Antibiotics

Johan S. Bakken, M.D., Ph.D.

For athletes and spectators who are attending the Olympic Games this month, the threat of deadly antibiotic resistant bacteria is all too real. Recently the “bad bug” carbapenemase-producing Klebsiella pneumonia (KPC) was discovered in the waters off several beaches of Rio, where rowing, canoeing and swimming events are scheduled to occur. KPC is one example of antibiotic resistant bacteria, which already sicken at least two million Americans every year. If people visiting Rio for the Olympics become infected with KPC, they may bring it back home, quickly spreading this dangerous bacterium around the world.  Without support for new antibiotic R&D, such as the 21st Century Cures Act, patients will lack treatment options for infections caused by KPC and other antibiotic resistant pathogens.

Antibiotic R&D is failing to keep pace with growing patient needs. Complex scientific, regulatory and financial barriers have driven most pharmaceutical manufacturers away from antibiotic R&D, and the antibiotic pipeline is very fragile. 

The 21st Century Cures Act includes the Antibiotic Development to Advance Patient Treatment (ADAPT) Act, by Representatives John Shimkus (R-IL) and Gene Green (D-TX), which would make clinical trials for the most urgently needed new antibiotics feasible to conduct. Specifically, it would allow new antibiotics developed to address an unmet medical need to be studied in smaller, more rapid clinical trials and approved only for the limited populations of patients who need them. The bill also contains safeguards to guide the judicious use of these antibiotics. 

While the House of Representatives passed Cures over one year ago, patients are still waiting for Senate action. The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee passed the bipartisan Promise for Antibiotics and Therapeutics for Health (PATH) Act by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Michael Bennet (D-CO) in April, which closely resembles the ADAPT Act and which is intended to be part of the Senate’s version of Cures. It is critical that the Senate act quickly, and that final Cures legislation includes this important antibiotics provision.

The discovery of KPC just off the shores of Rio as the world gathers there for the Olympics underscores the need for new antibiotics and Cures now. But the threat of antibiotic resistance is present in hospitals and communities globally, already killing at least tens of thousands of people every year in our country alone. The UK Antimicrobial Resistance Review estimated that at least 700,000 people die as a result of infections caused by antimicrobial resistant pathogens every year, and expect this number to grow to 10 million people by 2050 if we fail to act.

Stories of people impacted by these infections can be even more powerful than these statistics in driving policymakers to action. If you or a loved one has experienced an infection caused by an antibiotic resistant bug, and you are willing to share your story, please let us know. The Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA) and partner organizations are compiling stories for a Faces of Antimicrobial Resistance report to help policymakers understand the real world impact of antimicrobial resistance and the need for action.

Johan S. Bakken, M.D., Ph.D., is President of the Board of Directors of Infectious Diseases of America (IDSA), a consultant in infectious diseases at St. Luke’s Hospital and a clinical associate professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School Duluth.

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