Even before the global spread of a deadly virus that has shuttered businesses, schools, and entire economies, scientists had already sounded the alarm about another potentially catastrophic global public health crisis: antimicrobial resistance (AMR).

AMR is now a near and present danger to health systems and the people they serve. Health care systems, along with other sectors of society, are under threat from what are commonly known as “superbugs,” microbes that cause infections that are untreatable or resistant to antibiotics, antivirals, and antiparasitics. Without effective antimicrobials, tens of millions of lives are at risk.

A Business Approach to Solving AMR

During the UN Foundation’s recent 2020 Global Dialogue event, supported by global hygiene and health company Essity, private sector leaders offered a business perspective on the AMR threat. Steve Waygood, chief responsible investment officer at Aviva Investors, a global insurance and asset management firm, said: “We see AMR as one of the world’s biggest market failures. … The definition of a market failure is that markets left uncorrected lead to a suboptimal outcome for society. We feel there is a very significant need to correct that.”


“AMR is not something that’s new. Overuse and underdosing of antibiotics are leading to this growing problem,” added Dr. Karsten Hemmrich, Essity’s vice president of health and medical solutions. Hemmrich underscored just how dangerous this type of a global threat is, citing 25,000 deaths a year in the European Union alone. Additionally, across the world’s 20 most advanced economies, roughly 40% of cases of infection caused by bacteria can no longer be treated by antibiotics. Without measures to contain AMR, major surgeries or cancer chemotherapy will become riskier — and the number of people for whom treatment will fail or who will die of infection will increase.

Too Much at Stake

Now, the global COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated the urgency for world leaders to take corrective action collectively to combat the resistance of antimicrobial treatments and further, address significant shortfalls in our society — poverty, access to health care, climate change, and economic inequality.

The increased prevalence of drug-resistant pathogens is attributed to a number of factors, including the misuse and overuse of antimicrobials, poor infection and disease prevention, and inadequate access to quality, affordable diagnostics and medicines.

Globally, approximately 700,000 people die every year from drug-resistant infections. And estimates show that failure to act could raise the toll to 10 million deaths per year — surpassing the number of cancer deaths.

These are losses the world simply can’t withstand. That’s why decisive and immediate action is required across industries and sectors around the world to mitigate, prevent, and control AMR with responsible use of antimicrobials and drug-resistant infection control.

Mounting evidence of the dangers of AMR prompted three major UN agencies — the World Health Organization (WHO), Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) — to collectively endorse a collaborative and cross-industry approach, known as One Health. To further this innovative coordination, the UN recently launched One Health Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance to advocate for the urgent collective action needed to combat this world health threat.

The group is co-led by the prime ministers of Bangladesh and Barbados and includes a diverse group of health and environmental ministers from around the world, private sector leaders from Merck and Mars Inc., members of academia, and heads of civil society organizations such as Wellcome Trust.

“Antimicrobial resistance is one of the greatest health challenges of our time, and we cannot leave it for our children to solve,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during the announcement of the Global Leaders Group. “Now is the time to forge new, cross-sector partnerships that will protect the medicines we have and revitalize the pipeline for new ones.”

In addition to the potential cost of lives lost, if nothing is done, WHO estimates that the economic cost due to AMR by 2050 would be $100 trillion. Economic output could be lowered anywhere from 1% to 3% globally by 2030 due to a significant reduction in the labor force caused by AMR.

And inequity gaps around the world would only be widened. According to the World Bank, 24 million people in lower- and middle-income countries would be pushed into poverty by 2030 if the spread of superbugs is not halted.

Left unchecked, we will not only fail to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3 on health and well-being for all, but attainment of the other SDGs will also be considerably more challenging and costly. That’s why the UN, the UN Foundation, and partners across the philanthropic, nongovernmental organization, and business sectors are working together to stop AMR in collaborative and innovative ways. Given the scale of the problem, a global, cross-cutting solution will be the only way to succeed. As we look to build back better in the wake of a global pandemic, we must invest and collaboratively build up stronger systems to stop the next global health threat before it gets worse.

“It is an uphill battle,“ conceded Waygood, “but it’s a battle that we need to fight because people’s lives are at stake.”


Featured Photo: PAHO-WHO