World ‘must learn lessons’ from Coronavirus crisis to help in fight against superbugs

An online debate on Tuesday heard that preparing for a future health pandemic will be crucial in saving the lives of up to 50 million people.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

24 Nov 2020

One of the speakers at the online debate on antimicrobial resistance (AMR) and vaccines, organised by the European Policy Centre, was Phil Thomson, President of Global Affairs at GSK, who said that the current COVID-19 crisis is relevant to the debate on AMR.

He said, “Over the last 20 years we have had a lot of close calls, such as SARS and Ebola, but despite this we have continued to under invest in pandemic preparedness.”

The debate heard that around 700,000 people die every year due to infections from drug-resistant diseases, including some 33,000 in Europe.

The event, entitled “Antimicrobial resistance in the COVID-19 era - What solutions for halting its spread?”, was timely as it comes just a day after AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford announced positive results on their Coronavirus vaccine.

This week is also “World AMR Week”, which seeks to raise awareness of the issue while, on Wednesday, the Commission’s new pharma strategy is due to be unveiled.

Thomson said, “We now see an endgame to the crisis, but we cannot let it happen again. For that, we need another internationally coordinated effort which is well funded and well resourced. We have got to learn lessons from this crisis in order to tackle AMR.”

Saying the EU can be a “global champion” in tackling AMR, he added, “vaccines are the exit from this crisis and scientific innovation will get us out of AMR.”

“AMR is a silently growing pandemic which will affect the whole world. Without action it will take us back to an age when common infections become fatal and put patients at increased risk” Tiemo Wölken, S&D

He pointed to the AMR Action Fund, under which pharma companies hope to bring forward two out of three new antibiotics by 2030, but warned, “we still need much more though.”

“We have seen unprecedented vaccine innovation. This has been incredible and has delivered outstanding results. It has been driven by public and private sectors working together but we now must focus on developing AMR-relevant vaccines.”

He said there were 40 AMR vaccines under development, but this was in comparison with 140 for Coronavirus.

“This crisis has shown that we need to unite and integrate efforts, that means the EU and Member States working together. We should be optimistic, but we must learn from this pandemic. If we do we will improve health resilience and save lives.”

Another speaker, German Socialist MEP Tiemo Wölken, vice chair of Parliament’s interest group on  AMR, spoke of efforts to “put AMR at the top of our agenda”, adding that he hopes the issue will be included in the new EU pharma strategy.

He said, “Superbugs’ resistance to antibiotics threatens life and undermines all aspects of modern medicine. The Coronavirus has put healthcare systems under extreme pressure but this could merely be a foretaste for the world if antimicrobials are no longer effective.”

“This is a key issue because AMR is a silently growing pandemic which will affect the whole world. Without action it will take us back to an age when common infections become fatal and put patients at increased risk.”

“Over the last 20 years we have had a lot of close calls, such as SARS and Ebola, but despite this we have continued to under invest in pandemic preparedness” Phil Thomson, President of Global Affairs at GSK

“The current crisis has exposed the weaknesses of our healthcare systems and is also a reminder of the threat from AMR. It has also highlighted the need for increased monitoring, access to rapid diagnosis and affordable medicines.”

He said there had been a failure to invest in new antibiotics because they were seen as not profitable and too costly to produce. “We need, then, to provide incentives for industry to tackle AMR because investors currently don’t look at the unmet need but just the commercial interests.”

Wölken said that global antibiotic consumption was rising but that as much as 50 percent of all consumption was “inappropriate.”

“Most people do not know, for example, that antibiotics cannot be used in treating a virus and this is why there is a need for more awareness raising. We must stop the misuse and overuse of antibiotics.”

Annukka Ojala, deputy head of cabinet for EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, said, “We do need to raise awareness and we urgently need to change how we use antibiotics. It is important we don’t just roll from one health catastrophe into another one.”

She said the EU’s AMR Action Plan had “delivered important results, including the roll-out of national action plans and better use of antimicrobials in animals.”

“But there is still a lot of work to be done,” she said.

She said the weekend’s G20 meeting of global leaders had shown a “clear commitment to stronger action against AMR.”

She added, “There are a lot of lessons we can learn from this crisis for dealing with AMR, for example, that prevention is better than cure. It also shows the value of a united approach across all levels of society and cooperation between Member States.”

Prof Céline Pulcini, Coordinator of the French AMR National Action Plan, set up in 2016 by the French Ministry for Solidarity and Health, said antibiotic use in France was “high” and that an awareness raising campaign about AMR would be launched in 2021.

She said, “As part of our national health service, AMR is a priority topic. Innovation is important as well as the shortages of some antibiotics. The challenge will be to coordinate action between the main stakeholders and to raise AMR as a political priority, as it is in France.”

Another speaker, Mary Lynne Van Poelgeest-Pomfret, President of the World Federation of Incontinence and Pelvic Problems, said, “People must be more careful how they use antimicrobials and antibiotics and not overuse them, but the public need more information on this – it is a patients’ right to have such knowledge.”

She added, “Trust in vaccination is the key. People are currently feeling very vulnerable and frightened about vaccinations. They see a lot of stuff put out on social media so the key is that the correct information is disseminated. That will build trust and confidence and make people more likely to react in a positive way to vaccines.”

Debate moderator Simona Guagliardo, a policy analyst at the EPC, said AMR represents “one of the biggest” challenges for public health.

She said, “It is set to increase unless urgent action is taken.”

AMR costs €1.5 bn in healthcare in Europe alone per year and the World Bank says AMR could force many into “extreme poverty.”

Guagliardo said, “The current crisis aggravates AMR and should serve as a wake-up call of the critical importance of medical intervention.”

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