Man cleaning ward


Superbugs are threatening to return Britain to a ‘pre-antibiotic’ era in which common infections killed in huge numbers, a major new study warns.

There is an urgent need for new, effective medicines to replace drugs that have become useless, says the report by the Royal Society, the UK’s science academy.

The battle against drug-resistant bacteria has concentrated too much on tackling dirty hospitals and curbing the over-use of existing antibiotics.

‘Much of the debate has focused on cleaning hospitals,’ said vice president Professor David Read. ‘This is important, but it will not deal with the fact that MRSA and other infections are increasingly resistant to the medicines we have come to rely on to treat them.

‘We must make sure that the investment is in place to deliver the next generation of antibiotics to tackle future outbreaks of infection.’

The report highlights concerns that mankind is losing the battle against once-treatable bacteria.

Since the discovery of penicillin in 1929, antibiotics have transformed medicine and saved millions of lives. But their widespread use has led to the evolution of ‘superbugs’ – bacteria which have developed resistance.

The most infamous is MRSA – or Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus – which contributes to the death of around 5,000 people each year in the UK.

The report warned: ‘An increasing number of disease-causing bacteria are becoming resistant to available drugs and, for some pathogens, we are in danger of returning to a “pre-antibiotic era”, with bacterial diseases becoming more difficult and expensive to treat.’

The Government has responded to the superbug threat by imposing new hygiene standards on hospitals and calling on doctors to use fewer antibiotics.

The Royal Society report warned there was an ‘urgent need’ to develop new treatments.

Despite the superbug crisis, not enough new medicines were in the pipeline. The spiralling cost of developing drugs, the economic downturn and the fact that antibacterial drugs were ‘undervalued and underpriced compared to other drugs’, were all barriers, the report said.

‘Venture capitalists, biotechnology companies and pharmaceutical companies need conditions that will encourage them to invest in antibacterial agents,’ it said.

That could be done by reducing red tape, offering financial incentives for developing antibacterials and giving the drugs a more ‘realistic’ market value that reflects their life-saving status.

Professor Richard Moxon, head of the department of paediatrics at the University of Oxford, said doctors were increasingly alarmed by the number of multiple-resistant organisms.

‘In some cases microbes, like TB for example, are going to be resistant to all the treatments available and it is no longer going to be possible to treat patients with antibacterial drugs,’ he said.

‘Some forms of bacteria, such as the hospital-acquired ones, will be impossible to combat with the armoury currently available and that will mean a large number of fatalities if we do not invest in new drugs.

‘The problem is there are not many on the horizon. If the pharmaceutical industry’s pipeline is not empty, it is echoing loudly, which is very worrying.’

The report also highlights the need for more research into techniques for diagnosing infections earlier and more quickly.