Q&A: How battling superbugs could help prevent the next pandemic

Q&A: How battling superbugs could help prevent the next pandemic

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) occurs when microbes – or tiny germs such as bacteria, viruses or fungi – evolve in ways that make the medicines used to treat them stop working.

AMR is a serious looming problem. It can complicate other health conditions and put some people and communities at greater risk than others.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, deaths from AMR fell by 18%, but the pandemic erased years of progress, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Fighting antimicrobial resistance will require developing new medicines to treat evolving bugs and strengthening the healthcare supply chain to avoid disruption and the risk of drug shortages.

To understand how fighting AMR can help us prepare for the next pandemicwe spoke to Erika Satterwhite, head of global policy at Viatris, a global pharmaceutical company who is a member of the HealthyWomen’s Corporate Advisory Council.

The transcription has been slightly edited for clarity and length.

Healthy women: What role do you see AMR playing in the next pandemic?

Erika Satterwhite: according to A complete analysis Published in the British medical journal The Lancet, bacterial antimicrobial resistance or AMR was a factor in nearly 5 million deaths in 2019, placing it just behind heart disease and stroke among the top three causes of death worldwide. And that’s not even taking into account fungal and viral AMR. This phenomenon hits young children particularly hard: globally, one in five deaths attributable to AMR occurs in children under the age of 5. So, I think it’s safe to say that it’s a current issue, the leading cause of death globally and should absolutely be a key consideration in any conversation or preparedness steps taken for the next pandemic.

Healthy women: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the fight against AMR?

Erika Satterwhite: One of the benefits of Covid-19 is that global problems like AMR need global solutions. But, in the absence of these far-reaching solutions, local policies can go a long way in opening up access to essential medicines for the masses. Now is a time where the need for solutions at all levels is clear and has required the collaboration of a variety of stakeholders to address the problem.

Healthy women: How would fighting AMR strengthen the healthcare system?

Erika Satterwhite: The obvious answer is that we would retain our ability to successfully treat infections such as pneumonia or sepsis. But there are also knock-on effects: effective antibiotics are critical to many aspects of the health system that may not be immediately apparent. For example, chemotherapy, hip replacements, and cesarean sections all rely on antibiotics to prevent infection. Fighting antimicrobial resistance provides system resilience while preserving our ability to treat a broad range of conditions.

Healthy women: What tools would help in the fight against AMR?

Erika Satterwhite: Successfully combating antimicrobial resistance requires a multi-pronged approach. Some tools that would help fight AMR include:

  • Proactive infection prevention through enhanced hygiene and sanitation efforts, hospital infection control, and vaccination (for both bacterial pathogens and viral infections, which will prevent antibiotic overuse/abuse)
  • Educating healthcare professionals and patients on the correct use of antibiotics
  • Better management of existing antibiotics by using them only when relevant, at the appropriate dose and for the right amount of time, an effort that requires accurate diagnoses
  • Collaboration of a variety of disciplines, including industry, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and governments to develop new ways to address unmet needs and ways to remove barriers to access to antibiotics

Healthy women: What could be done — and who should be responsible — to strengthen the supply chain to avoid antibiotic shortages?

Erika Satterwhite: One of the key issues in the antibiotic supply chain is the importance of preserving a wide variety of antibiotics. This means in practical terms that we need many drugs available, even if they are not used often. Several antibiotics have been available as generic drugs for many years, and because the prices of some of them are so low, it is not economically viable for companies to continue producing or selling them. This can lead to unhealthy market concentration, which can lead to a higher risk of supply disruption. We need to preserve the availability of these older products to ensure we have the widest possible range of options for treating infections that may be resistant to certain antibiotics.

As you can imagine, this is a problem that requires all hands on deck to solve. Policy makers and payers need to recognize the value of market incentives for older products as well as new product introductions. Industry, NGOs and governments must find new ways to collaborate on strategies such as improving public awareness.

Globally, governments should collaborate through networks of surveillance and data sharing, and commit to protecting global supply chains to ensure broad and equitable availability and access to diagnostics and medicines. And governments at all levels need to work with industry, NGOs and civil society to make sure policies don’t have unintended consequences.

Healthy women: How should women prepare for future pandemics and what can people do to combat the progression of AMR?

Erika Satterwhite: Patients play an important role in combating the progression of antimicrobial resistance by making informed decisions about treatment and use. Better hygiene and vaccination against bacterial pathogens and viral infections also help prevent infections in the first place. And we know that women are important in this fight as we often serve as healthcare decision makers and enforcers of health and wellbeing in and around our homes.

This resource was created with the support of Viatris.

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