29 January 2019

New Era for UK Superbug Research: 20 Year Vision and Five Year Action Plan

The UK’s new 20 year vision and five year National Action Plan (2019-2024) for containing, controlling and mitigating antimicrobial resistance has been announced by Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the World Economic Forum at Davos today. The plans, which cover health, animals, the environment and the food chain, set out how the UK will continue to make substantial, tangible progress towards preventing the spread and improving treatments for superbugs. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) councils have helped to shape the future ‘One health’ research and innovation priorities, which are a core feature of the vision and five year plan.

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is now recognised as one of the most serious global threats to human health in the 21st century, with bacteria’s resistance to antibiotics increasingly spreading from one country to the next. Without effective antibiotics, most medical practices, including routine surgery, emergency operations, transplants, and chemotherapy will be less safe and in a post-antibiotic era even minor infections could prove fatal. A 2014 AMR review paper estimated that by 2050 the global cost of AMR will be up to $100 trillion and could account for up to 10 million extra deaths a year.

Since 2014, the UK has cut the amount of antibiotics it uses by more than 7% and sales of antibiotics for use in food-producing animals dropped by 40%. But the number of drug-resistant bloodstream infections have increased by 35% from 2013 to 2017. With the emergence of drug-resistant infections like super-gonorrhoea posing serious threats to health, we need to protect the antibiotics we have by making sure they are used only when needed.

To date, the UKRI cross council AMR initiative has supported 78 interdisciplinary projects at a total commitment of £44 million and in recognition of the global dimension of AMR, have committed £41 million, to support projects in partnership with members of the Joint Programme Initiative in AMR, and with emerging economies and low and middle-income countries. This support has established an active UK cross-sector AMR research community which can now be used to focus interventions at home and help other countries develop their own context-specific, evidence-based strategies.

To successfully deliver the research agenda of the refreshed strategy and maintain the UK’s global leadership UKRI will help to:

  • support co-ordinated AMR related research priority areas
  • continue to influence global research strategies on AMR, ensuring the alignment of UK-funded research, and emphasising the need for research to be useful for front-line teams
  • develop interdisciplinary networks and capacity to better undertake predictive analysis and inform and develop interventions across all sectors
  • continue to develop the scientific capacity needed to support and deliver ongoing high-quality research in infectious disease, prevention and microbiology-related disciplines.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “Imagine a world without antibiotics. Where treatable infections become untreatable, where routine surgery like a hip operation becomes too risky to carry out, and where every wound is potentially life-threatening.

What would go through your mind if your child cut their finger and you knew there was no antibiotic left that could treat an infection? This was the human condition until almost a century ago. I don’t want it to be the future for my children – yet it may be unless we act.

“As health secretary responsible for one of the most advanced healthcare systems in the world, I could not look my children in the eyes unless I knew I was doing all in my power to solve this great threat. When we have time to act. But the urgency is now.

“Each and every one of us benefits from antibiotics, but we all too easily take them for granted, and I shudder at the thought of a world in which their power is diminished. Antimicrobial Resistance is as big a danger to humanity as climate change or warfare. That’s why we need an urgent global response.

“The UK has taken a global lead by setting out a 20 year AMR vision explaining the steps we must take nationally and internationally to rise to this challenge. I am proud of the work the UK has done to secure antimicrobial resistance on the global agenda. We’re playing our part both at home and on the world stage.

“Because we recognise that none of us can stand alone against AMR. It won’t be solved by one nation, no single action or intervention.

“It is a fight that requires continued collaboration, across borders, now and in the future. It is a challenge, I believe, we can rise to if every step forward, we push ourselves further.”

Prime Minister Theresa May said: “The increase in antibiotic resistance is a threat we cannot afford to ignore. It is vital that we tackle the spread of drug-resistant infections before routine operations and minor illnesses become life-threatening.

“I am very proud of the UK’s global leadership on this important agenda. We will continue to work with our partners to drive international action that will protect the health of future generations.”

Professor Fiona Watt Executive Chair of the MRC, which leads UKRI's AMR Cross-Council Initiative, said: “Antimicrobial resistance arises from a complex interplay between biological, economic, cultural, environmental, and technical factors. By preventing infections, preserving existing antibiotics and promoting the development of new therapies and interventions, we will reduce the development and impact of AMR.

"Interdisciplinary research is crucial for making a step-change in preventing AMR. I am proud of the strategic direction MRC is providing in this area, establishing the UK AMR Funders Forum (AMRFF) and leading the AMR Cross-Council Initiative, with our fellow UKRI councils.”

For further information about antimicrobial resistance and what we are doing to tackle it please visit our Spotlight on AMR webpage.