White House releases breakthrough strategy on antibiotic resistance

After years of warnings from the public health community about the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, yesterday the White House announced a national strategy to combat the growing problem of antibiotic resistance within the U.S. and abroad. The administration’s commitment represents an important step forward, as antibiotic-resistant infections are responsible for 23,000 deaths annually, and cost over $50 billion in excess health spending and lost productivity.  The administration’s National Strategy on Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria includes incentives for developing new drugs, more rigorous stewardship of existing drugs, and better surveillance of antibiotic use and the pathogens that are resistant to them.  President Obama also issued an Executive Order that establishes an interagency Task Force and a non-governmental Presidential Advisory Council that will focus on broad-based strategies for slowing the emergence and spread of resistant infections. 

While antibiotics are crucial for treating bacterial infections, their misuse over time has contributed to a rather alarming rate of antibiotic resistance, including the development of multidrug-resistance bacteria or “super bugs.” Misuse manifests throughout all corners of public and private life; from the doctor’s office when prescribed to treat viruses; to industrial agriculture, where they are used in abundance to promote growth in livestock. New data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirm that rising overuse of antibiotics has already become a major public health threat worldwide.

The administration’s announcement included a report from the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) titled “Combatting Antibiotic Resistance,” which includes recommendations developed by a range of experts to help control antibiotic resistance. In addition, they outline a $20 million prize to reward the development of a new rapid, point-of-care diagnostic test. Such tests help health care providers choose the right antibiotics for their patients and streamline drug development by making it easier to identify and treat patients in clinical trials.  

The Need for Financial Incentives and Better Reimbursement

A highlight of the PCAST report is its recommendations on economic incentives to bring drug manufacturers back into the antibiotics market. Innovative changes to pharmaceutical regulation and research and development (R&D) will be welcomed by many in the health care community, but financial incentives and better reimbursement are necessary to alleviate the market failure for antibacterial drugs. A major challenge, particularly within a fee-for-service or volume-based reimbursement system is providing economic incentives that promote investment in drug development without encouraging overuse.

A number of public and private stakeholders, including the Engelberg Center for Health Care Reform and Chatham House’s Centre on Global Health Security Working Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, are exploring alternative reimbursement mechanisms that “de-link” revenue from the volume of antibiotics sold. Such a mechanism, combined with further measures to stimulate innovation, could create a stable incentive structure to support R&D. Further, legislative proposals under consideration by Congress to reinvigorate the antibiotic pipeline, including the Antibiotic Development to Advance Patient Treatment (ADAPT) Act of 2013, could complement the White House’s efforts and help turn the tide on antibiotic resistance. Spurring the development of new antibiotics is critical because resistance will continue to develop even if health care providers and health systems can find ways to prevent the misuse of these drugs.