Antimicrobial Resistance: A Recent Perspective

On January 23, 2018, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – the first independent analysis of pharmaceutical industry efforts to tackle antibiotic drug resistance, was published by the Netherlands based Access to Medicine Foundation.

The issue of Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) was brought under focus by the World Economic Forum (WEF) not for the first time at Davos in 2018. Its 2013 Annual Report on global risks, also underscored the gargantuan health hazard that AMR poses to mankind. It said, we live in a bacterial world where we will never be able to stay ahead of the mutation curve. A test of our resilience is how far the curve, we allow ourselves to fall behind. It’s indeed a profound statement!

In that sense, the AMF analysis is important. More so, when the global population is virtually at the threshold of facing a situation very similar to pre-antibiotic era, where even a common infection used to pose threat to a life. And now, a fast-developing AMR to many effective antibiotics or even super-antibiotics, are making them almost redundant in many serious conditions. Consequently, around 700,000 people die every year only due to antimicrobial resistance, the world over.

The World Health Organization (WHO) also reiterated its grave concern in this area by a news release on September 20, 2017. It cautioned, “Antimicrobial resistance is a global health emergency that will seriously jeopardize progress in modern medicine.” Against that backdrop, in this article, I shall dwell on some latest developments in this area, both globally and also in India.

Dire need for newer antibiotics – but dry R&D pipeline:

At the very outset, let me flag another critical area that is intimately related to this concern. An article titled, “Where Are the Antibiotics?”, published by the AARP Foundation adds more to this growing concern. It writes, in an era when many breakthrough innovative drugs are curing some of our most deadly afflictions, the quest for meeting the unmet medical needs, seems to have shifted away from development of critically needed breakthrough antibiotics to effectively address AMR, for various reasons.

The author further highlighted that between the time penicillin was discovered in 1928, and the 1970s – 270 antibiotics were approved – a robust arsenal of powerful drugs that kept almost all bacterial infections at bay. However, since then, research into new antibiotics has declined dramatically. Today, just five of the top 50 big drug companies are reportedly developing innovative antibiotics – the article reiterates.  Nevertheless, some recent developments in this area can’t be ignored, either, which I shall touch upon in this discussion.

Global initiatives for a multi-pronged concerted action:

It is understandable that there are no magic bullets to address the fast-growing menace of AMR. It calls for a multi-pronged strategy with well-orchestrated concerted efforts for its effective implementation with military precision. Following are the three primary constituents who should lead from the front in the battle against AMR, as I reckon:

  • The world leaders
  • Each country, individually
  • Pharmaceutical industry, both global and local

The medical profession, including hospitals, nursing homes, the retail chemists and individual patients, also play a significant role to alleviate this problem, especially in India and other developing countries. But, I shall keep that as a subject for a separate discussion, altogether. Let me now touch-upon the first three constituents, one by one, as follows:

1. The world leaders’ initiative:

Realizing that failure to act on AMR will result in a global health and financial crisis, the world leaders met to address this growing menace. Accordingly, on September 21, 2016, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) passed a declaration aimed at slowing the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. At this meeting in New York City, the top UN leaders successfully urged all governments to sign a political declaration to tackle the problem of AMR, both globally and in their respective countries. The joint declaration requires each country to develop a 2-year plan to protect the potency of antibiotics for both livestock and humans. The progress of the initiative for each country at the end of those 2 years will be evaluated. However, in this article, I shall focus only on the agreed human-specific actions, which include the following:

  • Antibiotics should be prescribed only when they are absolutely necessary
  • A massive education campaign about antibiotic resistance.
  • Greater monitoring of superbugs to understand the scope and magnitude of the problem.
  • Safeguarding current antibiotic stockpile.

The leaders suggested that people should be encouraged to help prevent the crisis from turning into a death sentence for millions, with the steps, such as:

  • Get available vaccines to prevent illness
  • Stop asking doctors for antibiotics when they have the cold or flu, as antibiotics treat neither
  • To urge their political leaders to commit to action in combating antibiotic resistance.

2. Country-specific initiatives:

In September 2016, just a year after the UNGA high-level meeting on AMR, an update by the United Nations Foundation reported that 151 countries out of 195 WHO member states have responded. The overall response includes the following, among others:

  • 85 percent of countries are developing or have developed National Action Plans (NAC).
  • 52 percent of countries have a fully developed plan with ‘One Health’ approach that seeks to unify human and veterinary medicine, agriculture, and food providers against the progression of AMR by reducing agricultural antimicrobial use.
  • 52 percent of Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs) have national-level measures in place on ‘Infection Prevention and Control (IPC)’ measures in human healthcare.

3. Pharmaceutical industry initiatives: 

I shall cite only the latest commendable developments in this area, as I see it. On Jan. 21, 2016 a document titled the ‘Declaration on Combating Antimicrobial Resistance’, was launched, again, as part of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.

For the first time, 85 pharmaceutical, biotechnology, generic-drug, and diagnostic companies agreed on a common set of principles for global action to support antibiotic conservation and the development of new drugs, diagnostics, and vaccines. The document, outlining several critical measures the government and industry must take to increase antibiotic effectiveness worldwide, was also drafted and signed by nine industry associations spanning 18 countries.

Global progress assessment of AMR initiatives in 2018:

This brings me back to where I started from, while analyzing what happened in this regard a year after the above declaration was signed. On January 23, 2018, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – the first independent analysis of pharmaceutical industry efforts to tackle drug resistance, was revealed by the AMF. It found companies are developing new drugs, as well as dismantling the incentives that encourage sales staff to oversell antibiotics, setting limits on the concentration of antibiotics in factory wastewater released into the environment, and tracking the spread of superbugs.

In the AMR Benchmark, GSK and Johnson & Johnson lead among the largest research-based pharmaceutical companies. A separate ranking of manufacturers of generic antibiotics features Mylan, Cipla, and Fresenius Kabi Global, in the leading positions. While Mylan leads the generic medicine manufacturers, Entasis, reportedly, leads the biotechnology group. 

Twenty-eight antibiotics are in late stages of development:

The other key findings of the 2018 study include mention of 28 antibiotics that are in later stages of development, targeting pathogens deemed critical AMR priorities by the WHO, and/or US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, only two of these 28 candidates are supported by plans to ensure they can be both made accessible and used wisely if they reach the market. Be that as it may, the benchmark finds room for all companies to improve in this space, the report indicated.

Some major initiatives in India:

The good news is, ‘The National Policy for Containment of Antibacterial Resistance’, with similar objectives, was put in place in India by the Directorate General of Health Services, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, way back in 2011. Further, on March 20, 2015, to strengthen the surveillance of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) in the country, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) had set up a National Antimicrobial Resistance Research and Surveillance Network (AMRRSN) to enable compilation of national data of AMR at different levels of health care.

Again, in February 2017, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR)  has put a new ‘Treatment Guidelines for Antimicrobial Use in Common Syndromes’, to achieve the same objectives. Despite this, as many medical experts opine, a large number of General Practitioners (GP), including hospitals, nursing homes continued over-prescribing antibiotics. Alarmingly, considered as the last line of defense antibiotics by many doctors – Colistin and Carbapenem resistant infections have also been reported from several Indian hospitals. All this adds further fuel to the AMR fire.

Another matter of huge worry in India:

The February 04, 2018 article titled, ‘Threats to global antimicrobial resistance control Centrally approved and unapproved antibiotic formulations sold in India,’ published in the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology, highlight serious hurdles for controlling antimicrobial resistance in India, which has had parliamentary investigations into the failures of the country’s drug regulatory system. The study was conducted by researchers from Queen Mary University in London, Newcastle University and Lakshya Society for Public Health Education and Research in Pune. Some of the key findings of the study are as follows:

  • Extensive use unapproved of fixed dose combination (FDC) antibiotics is contributing to the rising rate of AMR in India, which is already one of the highest in the world.
  • Out of the 118 of FDC antibiotics being sold in India, only 43 (36 percent) were approved by the CDSCO. These 118 antibiotic formulations are being sold in 3307 brand names and manufactured by 476 entities. Of these, 464 were Indian manufactures, and 12 were MNCs.

The authors recommend work on understanding why unapproved formulations are being prescribed by medical professionals.


As the above AARP Foundation article highlights, like all living beings, bacteria constantly evolve to survive. While encountering a new antibiotic, they quickly find ways to evade it, and continue to live or exist. Some have even developed cell wall like virtually impregnable shields, as it were, keeping antibiotics out. Others pump antibiotics out when they get in. Several deadly bacteria have even devised ways to deactivate antibiotics.

The comments made in the article titled, ‘The Future of Antibiotics and Resistance,’ published by The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on January 24, 2013, is also worth noting. It says, the converging crises of increasing resistance and collapse of antibiotic research and development are the predictable results of policies and processes we have used to deal with infections for 75 years. If we want a long-term solution, the answer is not incremental tweaking of these policies and processes. Novel approaches, based on a reconceptualization of the nature of resistance, disease, and prevention, are needed.

The bottom line still remains, AMR is a humongous threat to the global population, not just in India. While its awareness is gradually increasing, much more painstaking work remains to be done by all, both individually and collectively, to contain this global health menace. It’s our responsibility to protect the well-being of our future generations.

By: Tapan J. Ray  

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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