E. coli bacteria
Photograph by Ian Cuming — Getty Images/Ikon Images
By Sy Mukherjee
February 27, 2017

Global health officials on Monday unveiled a first-of-its-kind list of the world’s most deadly “superbugs” in a bid to urge businesses and governments to get serious about developing new antibiotics.

The list, created by the World Health Organization (WHO), contains 12 drug-resistant bacteria the agency describes as “the greatest threat to human health.” These “priority pathogens” are divvied up into three buckets ranked by urgency, from “critical” to “high” to “medium.” Many belong to a class called gram-negative bacteria which have evolved to fight off multiple types of antibiotics.

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Although public health experts have called the rise of superbugs a global health “ticking time bomb,” new antibiotic development has been alarmingly slow. The WHO hopes the specificity of the new list can help drug makers and medical researchers home in on the most dire threats.

“This list is a new tool to ensure R&D responds to urgent public health needs,” said Dr. Marie-Paule Kieny, WHO’s Assistant Director-General for Health Systems and Innovation, in a statement. “Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time.”

The three bacteria classified as “critical” priorities are Acinetobacter baumannii that’s resistant to the antibiotic carbapenem, carbapenem-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa, and a type of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (also known as CRE).

The WHO notes that simply creating new antibiotics won’t be enough to ward off a major global pandemic – preventive measures are also key. “To address resistance, there must also be better prevention of infections and appropriate use of existing antibiotics in humans and animals, as well as rational use of any new antibiotics that are developed in future,” wrote the agency.

At least 2 million Americans catch an antibiotic-resistant infection every year, and at least 23,000 of them die, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Last year, an elderly Nevada woman died from a superbug that was resistant to all 26 antibiotics available in the United States. It’s the first time such a bacteria was able to fight off every single one of these antibiotics.

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