White House declares war on drug-resistant superbugs

President Obama signed an executive order on Sept. 18 directing federal agencies to combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, or so-called superbugs.
(Alex Nabaum / For The Times)

The White House announced Thursday that it was mobilizing key federal agencies to combat a growing, global health threat -- bacteria that have evolved an immunity to powerful antibiotic drugs.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause 2 million illnesses and 23,000 deaths in the United States each year, mostly in hospital and nursing home settings, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Health advocates have long argued that over-use of antibiotics in the health and food industries has continued to make the problem worse.

“It is not just a U.S. problem ... antibiotic misuse continues to be rampant around the world,” said Dr. Jesse Goodman, director of the Center on Medical Product Access, Safety and Stewardship at Georgetown University Medical Center.


“We can help protect our nation from this threat, but to do that we cannot continue ‘business as usual,’” Goodman said in a prepared statement.

In an executive order signed Thursday, President Barack Obama identified drug-resistant bacteria as a threat to national security and the economy, and directed the creation of a special task force that will be co-chaired by the secretaries of Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services.

Among other responsibilities, the task force will oversee public, private and academic efforts to minimize the spread of superbugs by promoting the proper use of antibiotics; the acceleration of scientific research into new antibacterial drugs and novel therapies; and the creation of new diagnostic technologies that will identify drug-resistant bacteria.

To aid in the creation of a rapid, point-of-care diagnostic test, the White House also announced a $20 million prize, which is co-sponsored by the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

“In the fight against microbes, no permanent victory is possible: as new treatments are developed, organisms will evolve new ways to become resistant,” wrote a panel of science advisors in a report to the president also released on Thursday.

“This reality underscores how essential it is to embark now on a course of action that will ensure an effective arsenal of antibiotics that is continuingly re-newed,” wrote the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.


Officials estimate that drug-resistant bacteria have cost the nation $20 billion annually in direct healthcare costs, and another $35 billion in lost productivity.

The president’s action calls on federal agencies, including Veterans Affairs, to review their current use of antibiotics and to formulate new policies for their employment. It also directs the Food and Drug Administration to eliminate use of “medically important antibiotics” for growth-promotion purposes in poultry and livestock.

The plan also urges the improvement of international collaborative efforts for bacterial surveillance and control, as well as for the research and development of new drugs.

While a number of health advocacy groups lauded the White House plan, some said it did not go far enough.

Mae Wu, health attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the executive order needed to do more to limit use of antibiotics in the food industry.

“Unfortunately, much more follow through is needed from the administration,” Wu said in a prepared statement. “It must take steps to curb the overuse of antibiotics in animals, which consume 80% of the antibiotics sold in the United States.”

U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.) said she was disappointed by the plan because it continued to rely on a “voluntary approach” by the FDA.

Slaughter has pushed legislation to limit the use of antibiotics to sick animals only, as well regulations that would require drug companies to provide more information on how their drugs are used in food animals, her office said in a prepared statement.

The FDA has directed drug manufacturers to remove labeling on antibiotics that indicate their use as a growth-enhancer for food animals.

“Once their labels have been changed, the products can no longer be used legally for growth promotion purposes, or without veterinary oversight,” said FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg, in her blog Thursday.

She said the change would occur during a three-year transition period.

Among those groups that commended the president’s action was the Pew Charitable Trusts.

“The need is urgent,” said Allan Coukell, the trust’s senior director of drugs and medical devices. “Antibiotic resistance has grown with increasing use of the drugs. Meanwhile development of new drugs has not kept pace.”

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