For years, public health experts have warned that it is only a matter of time before we face a “superbug”—a strain of highly infectious bacteria that is resistant to every antibiotic in our arsenal. With the discovery of a strain of E. coli resistant to colistin, an antibiotic of last resort, the threat of superbugs has become even more severe.
Colistin-resistant bacteria was first discovered in China at the end of last year; it has since been found on every continent except Antarctica. We now know for certain that this superbug has found its way to U.S. soil. Just last month, a patient in Pennsylvania contracted a strain of this deadly bacteria—a development that had some health experts declaring “the end of the road” for antibiotics.
As we work to combat the emergence of a superbug, the worst case scenario is, unfortunately, a very likely one: colistin-resistant bacteria could converge with bacteria resistant to other types of antibiotics, spawning superbugs that are resistant to all antibiotics. This kind of antibiotic resistance occurs via a microscopic “handshake” between bacteria. The easy transference of resistance is what makes the bacteria found in Pennsylvania more significant than other types of superbugs previously encountered in the U.S. Fortunately, the woman in Pennsylvania was treated with the help of other drugs and released. But future patients may not be so lucky. That’s why we must act now to stop the next superbug.
Today, thousands of people die of infections that, just a decade ago, could have been easily treated with antibiotics. Consider that each year, two million people in the U.S. are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And each year, more than 20,000 of these patients die as a result of their infections. Without new treatments that can defeat these bacteria, even more Americans will die in the months and years to come.
Despite the urgent threat posed by nascent superbugs, it has been more than 30 years since we have developed a truly new type of antibiotic capable of fighting these drug-resistant bacteria. While there is no simple solution in the fight against superbugs, there is more Congress can and must do to address the problem.
First, the Senate should encourage innovation and development of new antibiotics by passing the Promise for Antibiotics and Therapeutics (PATH) Act—a bipartisan proposal we introduced at the beginning of this Congress. Our bill allows the Food and Drug Administration to approve antibiotics for limited populations of patients suffering from serious and life-threatening bacterial infections that are resistant to current treatments. In effect, our legislation jumpstarts the development of antibiotics that could eventually treat superbugs, including the colistin-resistant E. coli recently discovered in Pennsylvania.
The PATH Act also calls for the implementation of antibiotic stewardship programs and encourages more robust surveillance of bacterial resistance through the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network and other national tracking systems that play a critical role in fighting superbugs. The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions has reported our bill, and similar legislation has already passed the House of Representatives.
Earlier this week, we introduced the PATH Act as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Because our men and women in uniform frequently deploy to diverse countries across the world, they face an even greater risk of exposure to superbugs. By including the PATH Act as an amendment in the defense appropriations bill, we can better provide for the health of civilians and service members alike.
The discovery of a superbug on our home soil is an unmistakable sign we must redouble our efforts in the fight against antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We urge Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to join our cause by supporting the addition of the PATH Act as an amendment to this year’s defense bill. Time is limited, but if we set aside our differences and face this public health crisis together, we can discover new treatments that will save millions of lives.