The tide of drug-resistant superbugs threatens to overwhelm us if action isn't taken

Alok Jha

Former Science Correspondent

The tide of drug-resistant superbugs could overwhelm us Credit: David Cheskin/PA Wire

The increasing tide of drug-resistant superbugs will cost the world economy $100 trillion by 2050 and lead to and extra 10 million deaths per year, according to a leading economist, if they are not brought under control with new treatments.

Drug resistance is a growing problem that kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world every year. The most well known problem is that of antibiotic resistance but drugs against viruses, parasites and fungi are also becoming less useful as these pathogens also evolve defences. The term "antimicrobial resistance" (AMR) refers to this whole suite of drug-resistant infections.

Today's numbers come from an analysis produced as part of a review of antimicrobial resistance, launched by David Cameron in July and chaired by economist Jim O’Neill. Until 2013, O'Neill was chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. He is also well-known for coming up with the acronyms BRIC (in relation to the growing strength of the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India and China) and MINT (the next set of powerful economies - Mexico, Indonesia, Nigeria and Turkey).

His team reached its numbers by modelling the effects of increasing antimicrobial resistance on the labour force of countries and the resulting impact on their combined GDP. In addition to known antibiotic-resistant bacteria, they focused on some of the most worrying diseases that are becoming resistant to drugs, including malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.

The tide of drug-resistant superbugs could overwhelm us Credit: David Cheskin/PA Wire

"We cannot allow these projections to materialise for any of us, especially our fellow citizens in the BRIC and MINT world, and our ambition is such that we will search for bold, clear and practical long term solutions" said O'Neill at the launch of his report.

Crisis can be avoided, he added, if world governments worked together on concerted action to find new treatments for resistant diseases, regulate the use of drugs properly and spread good practice among doctors and patients in using the drugs we already have to try and minimise the evolution of resistance in bugs.

In some ways, O'Neill sees his review as similar to the Stern Review on the economics of climate change, commissioned by Gordon Brown in 2006 and which put that environmental topic firmly on the agendas of governments around the world.

The author of that report, Nick Stern, welcomed the AMR report, saying that "wise policy looks ahead and tries to manage risks, particularly the big ones. There can be no doubt now that antimicrobial resistance is one of the biggest that we, all of us, face."

The tide of drug-resistant superbugs could overwhelm us Credit: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Dr Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said that the medical community had long been aware that drug resistant infections were one of the biggest emerging threats to global health, with the potential to trigger new epidemics and to undermine the foundations of much modern healthcare.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, called the report a compelling piece of that took people a step forward in understanding the true gravity of the threat.

Jin-Yong Cai, chief executive of International Finance Corporation part of the World Bank Group said he was concerned that AMR could constrain economic progress in the world's poorest countries. "This report raises in stark terms the economic and human toll that AMR is taking on global health, and the consequences of inaction."

Today's is the first of a series of papers that will be published by O'Neill's team. The review will report its final findings in summer 2016.