Let's Learn from COVID: Prepare For Future Pandemics Now

By Candace DeMatteis, JD MPH

April 21, 2022

One COVID-19 lesson is already clear: The time to invest in preparedness for the next pandemic is now.

A major focus of our preparedness effort must be combating the foes we know -- namely drug-resistant superbugs. Without swift action to address this public health threat, I fear we'll be facing the next deadly pandemic sooner rather than later.

Like COVID-19, antimicrobial resistance -- which occurs when strains of bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other pathogens develop resistance to the medications used to treat them -- is a global crisis. The World Health Organization has named AMR a top global public health threat facing humanity.

Each year, nearly 3 million Americans contract a drug-resistant infection. By conservative estimates, 35,000 of them die. Yet some experts believe the actual toll is much higher -- approaching 162,000 annual deaths in the United States.

Antibiotics provide a safety net for infections caused by these superbugs -- and all types of injuries, illnesses, and medical interventions. Our ability to prevent and cure infections is foundational to our safety and health. But any time we use an antibiotic, the threat of resistance grows.

That means we must use antibiotics only when needed -- and develop more of them. Without new antibiotics, the risk of dying from infection after routine medical procedures becomes dangerously higher.

About 10% of people, including several of my family members, report having allergies to some first-line antibiotics. That makes the need for additional and better options even more important. For example, diabetes, also common in my family, raises risks of all sorts of infections -- foot, kidney, and bladder -- and the seriousness of them.

We worry about running out of options for otherwise routine ear, bladder, or strep infections. So should you. People undergoing common dental care to dialysis to chemotherapy all face infection risks and need antibiotics to cure them.

But protecting against widespread antimicrobial resistance won't be possible without government support.

U.S. biotech firms have the know-how to develop new antibiotics, but the antibiotic market is broken. To prevent or slow resistance, new antibiotics are used rarely -- held in reserve for serious infections. As a result, many firms that have invested hundreds of millions and spent years pursuing novel antibiotics end up declaring bankruptcy because sales of their drug are too small. Policymakers are aware of this problem, but progress is slow and antibiotic development takes time.

A bipartisan bill in Congress called the PASTEUR Act would fix these market barriers and encourage much-needed development. Under a "Netflix-like" subscription system, the federal government would pay participating research companies a flat fee in exchange for guaranteed access to a stream of new, innovative antibiotics and antifungals.

We've seen the devastating costs of not being prepared. We're closing in on a million lives lost from Covid-19 and economic damages approaching $16 trillion for businesses and families across the nation.

Our policymakers need to act now so we are better prepared for the next public health crisis. Making sure we can kill superbugs should be at the center of preparedness efforts.

Candace DeMatteis, JD MPH, is an Adjunct Professor of Public Health Sciences at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and Vice President of Policy and Advocacy for the Partnership to Fight Infectious Disease.