‘Global health emergency’: We’re running out of antibiotics, the WHO warns

Global health officials are grappling with a “serious lack” of new antibiotics to fight the proliferation of superbugs, the World Health Organization (WHO) is warning in a new report.

Right now, there are 51 new antibiotics in the works to treat superbugs – but only eight are classified as “innovative treatments that will add value” to the drugs we already have on hand.

In the meantime, some pathogens that cause common infections like pneumonia or urinary tract infections are growing into resistant bugs that don’t respond to any antibiotics.

READ MORE: These are the 12 bacteria the world should be gravely worried about, the WHO warns

The drugs in our current arsenal are being dubbed as “only short-term solutions.”

“Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously jeopardize progress in modern medicine,” Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO, said in a statement.

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“There is an urgent need for more investment in research and development for antibiotic-resistant infections including TB, otherwise we will be forced back to a time when people feared common infections and risked their lives for minor surgery,” he said.

READ MORE: New superbug resistant to 26 antibiotics killed U.S. woman, docs say in scary case study

Drug-resistant tuberculosis kills about 250,000 people each year.

This is the second time in recent months that the WHO has put out a stern warning about superbugs and antibiotics.

In February, it said the world is on the cusp of a “post-antibiotic” era, pointing to a dozen bacteria that are growing resistant to all medications we have on hand.

The WHO’s ranking of 12 high-priority pathogens that need R&D for new antibiotics

Priority 1: Critical

  • Acinetobacter baumannii, carbapenem-resistant
  • Pseudomonas aeruginosa, carbapenem-resistant
  • Enterobacteriaceae, carbapenem-resistant, ESBL-producing

Priority 2: High

  • Enterococcus faecium, vancomycin-resistant
  • Staphylococcus aureus, methicillin-resistant, vancomycin-intermediate and resistant
  • Helicobacter pylori, clarithromycin-resistant
  • Salmonellae, fluoroquinolone-resistant
  • Neisseria gonorrhoeae, cephalosporin-resistant, fluoroquinolone-resistant

Priority 3: Medium

  • Streptococcus pneumoniae, penicillin-non-susceptible
  • Haemophilus influenza, ampicillin-resistant
  • Shigella spp., fluoroquinolone-resistant
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Most of the dozen on the notorious list are gram-negative bacteria. That means they’re resistant to multiple antibiotics. They have “built-in capabilities” to resist treatment and even pass along genetic material to other bacteria, teaching them to evade antibiotics, too, the WHO warns.

READ MORE: Canadian docs discover fungus that fights deadly superbugs

“Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time,” Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, the WHO’s assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, said in a statement.

The highest priority include bacteria that pose a threat to hospitals, nursing homes and patients with compromised immune systems or who rely on devices like ventilators and blood catheters. These are the germs that lead to severe and often deadly illnesses like pneumonia or blood infections.

In his final days as Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Gregory Taylor told Global News in 2016 that superbugs were of utmost concern to him.

We’re nearing a reality in which operations can’t happen or routine infections could kill people, he warned.

READ MORE: New superbug renders antibiotics powerless

He called anti-microbial resistance a “wicked problem” the country is facing.

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“They’re problems that are difficult and hard to tackle,” he said.

“This is public enemy No. 1,” Dr. Gerry Wright, lead researcher and McMaster University scientist, said of superbugs.

Almost 90 years ago, Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin and ushered in a wave of new medications, all derived from bacteria in the soil beneath our feet.

READ MORE: Antibiotic resistant bacteria found in squid sold in Canadian grocery store

Suddenly, pneumonia, tuberculosis, blood infections — ailments that once killed entire communities at a time — became manageable. Antibiotics were dubbed “wonder drugs”: they revolutionized medical care and extended life expectancy.

But we’re still relying on old innovations: half of the antibiotics prescribed to sick patients today were discovered in the 1950s, Canadian research suggests.

Wright says there has been virtually no new antibiotics discovered since the 1980s.

READ MORE: We need new antibiotics. Who’s going to pay for them?

“We’re at a very precarious point simply because we don’t have any new drugs coming on board,” Wright told Global News.

Read the WHO’s full report.