Congressional Action in the Fight Against Superbugs | Commentary

Posted January 15, 2015 at 3:22pm

If the members of the new Congress are looking for ways to show the world they can take action and get things done, I have a suggestion. How about a bipartisan piece of legislation that has the potential to help save injured troops and strengthen public health in the United States and across the globe?

Today, two senators, Orrin G. Hatch, R-Utah, and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., introduced a bipartisan bill to encourage the development of badly-needed antibiotics. It’s similar in intent to a bipartisan bill introduced during the last congressional session in the House of Representatives.

The legislation addresses the looming crisis of antibiotic resistance, the rise of so-called “superbugs” that do not respond to any antibiotic treatment available today. Establishing a new pathway for antibiotic development has broad support among industry, public health groups, medical societies and veterans’ organizations. Clearly the concept has bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, a fact that gives me real hope this Congress will take meaningful action.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. Superbug infections are a global threat that costs thousands of lives every year — an estimated 23,000 in the United States alone. And according to a recent report from an advisory committee convened by the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, superbugs — including bacteria resistant to antibiotics — will cause 10 million deaths a year and as much as $100 trillion in societal costs globally by 2050 if we do not act.

As a veteran, I know that antibiotic resistance poses a particular risk to our troops. Too many brave men and women have survived major combat injuries, only to succumb to infections that no approved antibiotic can treat. I think of Marine Lance Cpl. Jonathan Gadsden. After a roadside bomb exploded under his Humvee in Iraq, he survived airlifts to military hospitals in Baghdad and Germany, and to the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. He died at age 20, not from his injuries, but rather from the multidrug-resistant infections that followed.

Tragically for soldiers such as Gadsden, we’re falling behind in the race to find new antibiotics to combat superbugs. As bacteria continually adapt to defeat the drugs we have today, the pace of new drug development has slowed dramatically. In the 1980s, 29 new antibiotics were approved. In the 1990s, 23 were approved. In the 2000s, just nine made it to market.

The legislation introduced today would help overcome some of the regulatory hurdles facing new antibiotic development, and create a pathway to approve new antibiotics for patients who have no options left. The president has also recognized the threat of antibiotic resistance. In September, he issued a national strategy that emphasizes the importance of using our existing antibiotics wisely, and the pressing need for new drug development.

The time is right. There is broad support for updating the antibiotics approval process from industry and the nonprofit sector. There is bipartisan support on both sides of the Hill and at the White House. For the sake of our returning troops and the millions of people worldwide at risk of untreatable infections, I hope this legislation is among the first bills to pass the new Congress.

Rear Admiral James J. Carey is the national chairman of The Flag & General Officers’ Network and is chairman of the Science in Service to Humanity Foundation in Washington, D.C.