We are Losing the Fight Against Superbugs

A biological nightmare is upon us, and we need to fight back.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced an alarming development in the battle between humans and dangerous bacteria: Researchers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center confirmed that a forty-nine-year-old woman in Pennsylvania was infected with a superbug resistant to colistin, an antibiotic of last resort, generally given to patients when everything else has failed.

Public health officials have been tracking this new kind of colistin resistance since it first emerged in China last year. Quickly thereafter, it was also discovered on multiple continents, in countries around the world. It was only a matter of time until it was discovered the United States.  And now we know it is here.

What is most concerning about this particular superbug—a strain of E. coli—is the kind of antibiotic resistance it has. This form of resistance is highly transferable. It can spread more easily than other superbugs giving it the potential to easily combine with other types of drug resistance and create a whole new category of superbugs that are immune to every antibiotic we have.

This is a dangerous turning point, particularly as doctors have been turning to colistin more and more in recent years to treat increasingly drug-resistant infections. According to, a 2012 study showed colistin use is on the rise in Veterans Affairs hospitals as patients—in this case America’s military veterans—run out of options to treat their infections.

The CDC announcement follows on the heels of a report commissioned by the U.K. government’s warning of the cost of not taking action against the growing threat of superbugs. According to that report, by 2050 we could be looking at 10 million lives lost each year—that’s one death every three seconds—due to antimicrobial resistance, and a cumulative cost of $100 trillion to the global economy. Our own CDC conservatively estimates that already each year at least two million Americans are infected with these resistant superbugs, 23,000 of them fatally.

These statistics paint a grim picture of what could be to come: the dawn of a postantibiotic era in which the modern medicine we take for granted today is no longer safe because we will not be able to control infection—from childbirth and surgery to dialysis and chemotherapy. Even simple cuts and wounds could have an increased risk of turning septic and fatal without effective antibiotic treatments. Indeed, many of our soldiers have already seen a preview of what this post-antibiotic world will look like, as more than a third of returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are affected by resistant bacteria.

While there is no silver bullet to tackle the threat of antibiotic resistance, a critical part of the solution is finding new types of antibiotics that can treat these increasingly dangerous superbugs. Shockingly, it’s been more than thirty years since we last discovered a new type of antibiotic that has made it to patients. And as a result, there are too few antibiotics in the pipeline with even the potential to treat the most urgent microbial threats we face.

Thankfully, Congress is has begun to heed these dire warnings. In 2016 Congress gave a much-needed funding increase to the fight against superbugs. But more needs to be done. And the Senate has an opportunity to take action and do just that next week.

Following unanimous passage by the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions in April, the full Senate will soon consider the Promise for Antibiotics and Therapeutics for Health (PATH) Act, as a bipartisan amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act. Similar legislation was also passed by an overwhelming majority in the U.S. House of Representatives last year.

The legislation would give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the tools to evaluate and approve antibiotics to treat serious infections that are resistant and potentially deadly. These are the drugs we need the most, and it is particularly appropriate that such legislation would be included in a national defense bill, given the serious and urgent threat that multi-drug-resistant infections post to our military and our nation/all of our citizens.

In addition to the bleak global statistics, numerous studies have documented a marked increase in multidrug-resistant infections among military members. And in military hospitals across the country, even young, combat-injured patients are succumbing to these infections. It’s heartbreaking and doesn’t have to be this way.    

The new, targeted pathway proposed in the PATH Act has broad, bipartisan support, as well as support of stakeholders across the spectrum—military and veterans’ groups such as the National Military and Veteran Alliance, as well as medical professional societies, antibiotic developers, and public health organizations. It’s also been endorsed by the President’s Council of Science and Technology Advisors and the President’s Advisory Council on Combatting Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria. And most importantly, it has the potential/promises to take us one, giant leap in the forward in the fight against superbugs.