Are we prepared for the silent pandemic of antibiotic resistance?

Overshadowed by COVID-19, antibiotic resistance continues to spread worldwide. The development of new antibiotics could help to solve the problem – but is enough being done currently? Experts invited by GARDP, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to develop and bring to market new antibiotics, discussed this question.

“It would be better if we were”, was the incisive answer of Manica Balasegaram, Executive Director of Global Antibiotic Research & Development Partnership (GARDP), to the title question of this article. Experts from the field of medicine, the financial industry and the federal administration discussed the parallels between tackling COVID-19 and antibiotic-resistant infections, and looked for solutions for more rapid development of new antibiotics at a high-level event in Geneva.

“Nobody is safe until everybody is safe” – this common refrain during the COVID-19 pandemic also applies to the fight against antibiotic resistance, said Andrea Arz de Falco, Deputy Director of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH), in her opening address to the event. International cooperation is therefore also extremely important in combatting antibiotic resistance, which knows no borders. Antibiotic-resistant infections are also referred to as a "silent pandemic", as rates of resistance have increased steadily over recent decades. Resistance genes can move between animals, people and the environment. The One Health approach – in which the various sectors concerned including human medicine, veterinary medicine, agriculture and the environment develop and implement solutions together – is therefore vital in combatting this silent pandemic.

Another parallel with the COVID-19 pandemic is that we can get global health problems under control more rapidly through research and development. The international community should not watch and wait until antibiotic resistance results in an actual pandemic; it should instead already be making targeted investments into developing new antibiotics.

This is precisely where GARDP comes in: The organisation develops new antibiotics and makes these available worldwide. The Federal Office of Public Health therefore supports GARDP as part of the Swiss antibiotic resistance strategy (StAR). GARDP has set itself the target of bringing five new antibiotics against resistant pathogens onto the market by 2025 – an ambitious target in an area in which hardly any new medications have come onto the market in recent decades. The focus is on those infections that are already difficult to treat in many countries: sexually transmitted diseases such as gonorrhoea, septicaemia in newborns and multi-drug resistant infections in hospitalised individuals. One key element of GARDP's work is making the antibiotics developed also available in poorer countries, as the disease burden is greatest in the Global South. A large proportion of the 700,000 people worldwide who die due to an infection with resistant bacteria die in those parts of the world.

GARDP is currently largely funded by various governments. One of its new backers is the canton of Geneva, as Councillor Nathalie Fontanet announced at the high-level event. Panellists* agreed on the urgency of providing sufficient funding to approaches such as GARDP. The importance of public-private partnership was also stressed. Because new antibiotics are a vital element in combatting the silent pandemic of antibiotic resistance – in Switzerland and around the world. Yet the pipeline of antibiotics currently in development is still insufficient.

* Panellists:
- Manica Balasegaram, Executive Director, GARDP
- Melchior de Muralt, Co-Founder, BlueOrchard
- Bertrand Levrat, Director-General, Geneva University Hospitals
- Enrichetta Placella, Deputy Head of Global Program Health, Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

Last modification 16.11.2021

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Bild ADF from Nicholas Peart_GARDP

Andrea Arz de Falco, Deputy Director of the FOPH giving her opening address (photo: Nicholas Peart/GARDP)