By Ben Hirschler
LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister David Cameron called on Wednesday for global action to tackle the threat of drug-resistant superbugs and said Britain planned to take a leading role in finding ways to spur the development of new antibiotics.
A world without effective antibiotics would push medicine back into the "dark ages", he said, with routine surgery, treatments for cancer and organ transplants potentially becoming impossible.
Cameron announced an independent review led by former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill to pinpoint the problems and identify why so few new antibiotics are being developed.
O'Neill, who described the job as "a very exciting challenge”, will bring together experts from around the world, reflecting the global nature of the superbug threat.
Cameron said he had discussed the issue at a G7 summit of leaders in Brussels last month and won specific support for the initiative from U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"If we fail to act, we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again," he said in a statement.
“With some 25,000 people a year already dying from infections resistant to antibiotic drugs in Europe alone, this is not some distant threat but something happening right now."
The O’Neill Commission will set out a plan for encouraging and accelerating antibiotic development, looking into ways to pay drugmakers for producing antibiotics even if they are rarely used. It is due to present its initial findings in 2015, with a final report a year later.
It is being hosted and funded by the Wellcome Trust charity in London, which is contributing 500,000 pounds ($850,000) to the project.
The initiative is the latest example of Cameron giving Britain a leadership role in global health - a strategy that dovetails with his government's desire to make the country a hub for medical and life science research. Last December, Cameron held a global summit in London on dementia.
RACE AGAINST EVOLUTION
Drug resistance is driven by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics, which encourages bacteria to develop new ways of overcoming them.
Resistance has been a feature of medicine since Alexander Fleming's discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in Britain in 1928. But the problem has become worse in recent years as multi-drug-resistant bugs have developed and drug companies have reduced investment in an unprofitable field.
Unlike big sellers such as statins for lowering cholesterol, antibiotics are used for only short periods and doctors also tend to keep the newest and most potent ones in reserve.
Prices for antibiotics are also low, reflecting the availability of many cheap generic versions, in contrast to treatments for other diseases such as cancer.
Recent years have seen the emergence of strains of infections, including tuberculosis, malaria, pneumonia and gonorrhoea, that resist all known drugs.
Only a handful of new antibiotics have been developed and brought to market in the past few decades, and it is a race against time to find more as bacterial infections increasingly evolve into superbugs resistant to even the most powerful last-resort medicines reserved for extreme cases.
One of the best known superbugs, MRSA, is alone responsible for tens of thousands of deaths in the United States and Europe, as well as untold numbers in poorer countries.
Cameron's decision to set up the O'Neill Commission follows a call by scientists in May for a independent body on antimicrobial resistance, modeled on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. [ID:nL6N0O850J]
The commission was welcomed by Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, which is developing a parallel global action plan on antimicrobial resistance.
In one promising sign, Swiss drugmaker Roche recently said it was returning to the antibiotic field - but its move runs counter to a gradual drift to the exit by Big Pharma over the past decade. [ID:nL6N0O23W9]
Only a handful of pharmaceutical firms with large antibiotic R&D programs remain, compared with nearly 20 in 1990, according to the Infectious Diseases Society of America.
One of those still in the game is GlaxoSmithKline, which said new economic models were needed to encourage investment.
($1 = 0.5877 British Pounds)
(Editing by Mark Potter and Sonya Hepinstall)