Drug-resistant so-called superbugs kill at least 700,000 worldwide each year and deaths are expected to rise to 10m per year by 2050, according to economist Jim O’Neill.

Excessive antibiotic means bacteria are increasingly developing antibiotic resistance, making antibiotics useless.

One of the big reasons for this: Farmers are giving livestock low-dosage antibiotics to promote weight gain.

In response, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) brought in guidelines earlier this month, limiting the use of antibiotics in livestock to increase animal size.

As much as 80 percent of antibiotics prescribed in the US are being given to animals and an estimated 20 percent of drug-resistant infections are caused by bacteria from animals or food. 

The human angle

However, the steps taken by the FDA are unlikely to go far enough.

In humans, antibiotics are commonly prescribed for viral infections (which have no effect), and courses are also often terminated early (when the patient’s symptoms subside), increasing the chances of bacteria surviving and developing resistance.

This issue is heightened by the fact that antibiotic-resistant bacteria spread most readily between people — particularly in hospitals, which are the most common source of superbug infections like MRSA.

The FDA has made previous efforts to raise awareness of these issues, but they remain a challenge.

Only addressing part of the problem

The new FDA guidelines will help to reduce rates of antibiotic resistance but they do not restrict the use of antibiotics for livestock disease prevention.

Veterinarians commonly prescribe antibiotics to entire farms of up to 5,000 animals to prevent disease, even if just a few or even no animals are sick.

This leads to massive antibiotic overuse, which the new guidelines do not address.

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Pharma may provide the solution

If drug-use guidelines are unlikely to provide an effective solution to excessive antibiotic use, it may fall to pharma to deliver an alternative approach.

Several newly developed drugs are effective in treating drug-resistant bacterial infections, and some of these are also suggested to offer natural protection against bacterial resistance.

It may well be that the way antibiotics are used, both in people and animals, is too difficult to change.

If this is the case then innovative new drugs will be essential to combat the increasing threat of superbugs.