This opinion column was submitted by John Packham, Ph.D., associate dean for the Office of Statewide Initiatives at the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine.
Since March 2020, our collective attention has been understandably diverted from a number of pressing public health problems, as we were forced to focus our political capital and economic resources to the greatest public health challenge of our lifetime, the global COVID-19 pandemic.
A shortlist of major public health challenges that haven’t gone anywhere include the opioid epidemic, the mental health crisis and related provider shortages, and our never-ending epidemic of gun violence, just to name a few. Another looming threat on that list is our ongoing battle with emerging infectious diseases and treatment-resistant pathogens, or “superbugs.”
A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded that the threat of antimicrobial resistant infections – that is, bacterial or fungal infections resistant to current antimicrobial therapies – is not only present but actually worsened over the course of the pandemic as providers overprescribed antibiotics and inundated hospitals battled drug-resistant infections by any and all means.
Prior to the pandemic, public health agencies and U.S. hospitals were on the path of making progress on slowing the spread of drug-resistant infections and reducing the need for antibiotic use in the first place – 90% of U.S. hospitals had an antibiotic stewardship program in place and antimicrobial-resistant infections fell by 27% from 2012 to 2017.
Those gains, however, are threatened by the steady rise of antimicrobial-resistant infections and stalled progress on antimicrobial drug development over the last couple of years. According to the CDC, nearly 50,000 people die each year from drug-resistant and antibiotic-associated infections – infection rates that, again, have been slowly rising since the onset of the pandemic.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers has proposed legislation – the Pioneering Antimicrobial Subscriptions to End Upsurging Resistance Act or “PASTEUR Act” named after French microbiologist Louis Pasteur – that addresses current obstacles in antimicrobial drug development and improved antibiotic use and surveillance by public health agencies.
According to bill’s co-sponsors, Senators Michael Bennet (D-Colorado) and Todd Young (R-Indiana), the PASTEUR Act establishes a delinked subscription program to encourage innovative antimicrobial drug development targeting the most threatening infections, improve the appropriate use of antibiotics, and ensure domestic availability of new drug availability when needed.
The “delinked subscription” component of the proposed legislation would provide funding for drug developers for an extended period following approval by the Food and Drug Administration in exchange for patients covered by federal insurance programs (namely, Medicare) receiving these drugs at no cost.
The Act addresses a key challenge faced by drug makers: a long, expensive drug development process combined with an uncertain return on investment…