The discovery of penicillin in the 1920s was a major medical milestone that led to decades of antibiotic research and improved countless people’s lives. For the first time, doctors could treat pneumonia and tuberculosis easily and effectively. Surgery and childbirth were no longer so risky. And little nicks and cuts would no longer become full-blown infections.
Now that legacy is unraveling. Because we’re using too many antibiotics, bacteria and other pathogens are developing resistance, and we’re running out of new drugs. For example, there were 480,000 new cases of TB worldwide in 2013, and many of them went untreated. In India, a growing share of bacteria is now thought to be drug-resistant.
The problem is likely to get worse. In the developing world, controls on antibiotic sales are often lax, and in the developed world, we use antibiotic for all kinds of frivolous purposes–like treating livestock animals who aren’t even sick (antibiotic use on American farms went up again this year).
How bad could it get? A new report, commissioned by the British government, runs the numbers and comes up with some staggering predictions. By 2050, the report says there will be 10 million extra deaths a year, and as much as $100 trillion in economic damages. And that’s only the start. The report looks at just three types of bacterial infection, plus malaria, HIV and TB. It doesn’t include everything else. More to the point, the $100 trillion figure includes only loss of economic output. It doesn’t compute healthcare costs, which are obviously bound to be significant.
The research was conducted by the RAND group and KPMG and compiled by a committee led by Jim O’Neill, ex-head of economic research at Goldman Sachs and inventor of the “BRIC” acronym. From the report:
The studies estimate that, under the scenarios described below, 300 million people are expected to die prematurely because of drug resistance over the next 35 years and the world’s GDP will be 2 to 3.5% lower than it otherwise would be in 2050. This means that between now and 2050 the world can expect to lose between 60 and 100 trillion USD worth of economic output if antimicrobial drug resistance is not tackled. This is equivalent to the loss of around one year’s total global output over the period, and will create significant and widespread human suffering.
The modeling assumes 100% drug resistance rates, and infection rates rising in line with today’s numbers. For malaria, the researchers went back to the 1950s, before the development of anti-malaria drugs. The results show an uneven pattern of threat, with India, Nigeria and Indonesia coming off worst for malaria, and Russia being at high risk from TB.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, the report also looks at secondary conditions that might be exacerbated by drug resistance. Cancer chemotherapy “would become a much riskier proposition,” it says, while some hip operations and caesarean sections would become too dangerous even to attempt.
Having quantified the problem, the committee will now look at potential solutions including new vaccines (e.g., for malaria) and advances in genetics and genomics. “We cannot allow these projections to materialize for any of us, especially our fellow citizens in the BRIC and MINT world, and our ambition is such that we will search for bold, clear and practical long term solutions,” O’Neill says.