Drug-resistant superbugs are as big a threat to the world as climate change or wars, Britain’s Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned during a speech at Davos in which he unveiled a five-year action plan for the UK, and a 20-year vision, to tackle the threat of antimicrobial resistance by 2040.

“I could not look my children in the eyes unless I knew I was doing all in my power to solve this great threat,” Matt Hancock said during a speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland on Thursday.

“I shudder at the thought of a world in which their (antibiotics’) power is diminished. Antimicrobial resistance is a big danger to humanity and is as big a danger as climate change or warfare.”

Antibiotics are used to prevent bacterial infections related to a range of medical problems and procedures, such as surgery, but overusing them can lead to the bacteria becoming resistant. This has led to the development of superbugs — bacteria that have become resistant to the main antibiotics used against them — which present a major threat to global healthcare.

Scientists believe that around 70% of bacteria that cause infections are already resistant to at least one antibiotic that would otherwise be used to combat it.

New drugs

As part of a new 5-year plan in the UK, Hancock announced that the government will offer pharmaceutical companies incentives to develop “urgently needed” new drugs.

Current models mean companies are incentivized to sell as many antibiotics as possible at a time when the world is trying to reduce antibiotic use.

Low returns on investment in developing drugs also mean the pharmaceutical “industry does not innovate enough and as a result, very few of the new drugs that are currently in the pipeline are targeted towards priority infections,” according to a press release from the UK’s Department of Health and Social Care.

The UK’s National Health Service will also explore new payment models that focus on drugs of most value to the health system, such as drugs to treat infections already showing resistance.

“Under the current market system, companies are paid for the number of drugs they produce rather than how valuable the drugs are to the NHS,” the department wrote.

Work to introduce a new payment model will be underway within six months, said Hancock, adding that this will encourage companies to invest in the “estimated £1 billion needed to develop a new drug.”

“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,” UK Prime Minister Theresa May said in response to the plan, in a statement released Thursday.

At present, there are just 28 new projects in late-stage development worldwide, with very few new drugs making it onto the market each year.

Medical charity the Wellcome Trust welcomed news of the government plan but urged it to move quickly. “If we are to bring the global threat of AMR under control, we must ensure that new antibiotics currently in development make it to the people who need them most,” Ed Whiting, Wellcome’s Director of Policy, said in a statement to CNN.

“This plan makes a strong argument for continuing UK leadership on this important debate, but we must move further and faster to ensure there is a sustainable pipeline for the antibiotics we so urgently need,” he added.

Tackling antibiotic over-use

The British government also plans to control and contain drug resistance within 20 years and reduce the use of antibiotics in humans by 15% over the next five years.

Since 2014, the UK has cut antibiotic use by more than 7%, but the number of drug-resistant bloodstream infections nonetheless increased by 35% between 2013 and 2017, Hancock said.

In 2018, Public Health England reported the case of of a UK man infected with a multidrug-resistant form of gonorrhea.

“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,” the Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement.

Public Health England also warned last year that common procedures including caesarean sections and hip replacements could carry greater risks if antibiotic resistance and shortages of the drugs continue to grow.

Hancock also announced a plan to work with vets and farmers to reduce antibiotic use in animals by 25%.

“(AMR) not only affects human health, but threatens animal health and welfare and food security. Resistance occurs everywhere that bacteria are found: in people, in animals and in the environment,” Environment Secretary Michael Gove said in a statement.

Only three countries in WHO’s African region and seven countries in its Americas region have limited the use of antimicrobials in animals, moves which WHO calls “an important step to reduce the emergence of antimicrobial resistance.”

There has been increasing urgency to tackle antibiotic resistance as drug-resistant bacteria are expected to kill 10 million people a year by 2050 — that’s one person every three seconds — if nothing is done to solve the problem, according to the 2016 Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, commissioned by the British government.

Countries around the world are taking a range of steps to tackle the issue, but the World Health Organization warns that “serious gaps remain” and urgent action is needed.

“Promising findings include 105 countries with a surveillance system in place for reporting drug-resistant infections in human health and 68 countries with a system for tracking consumption of antimicrobials,” the agency wrote last year.

But antibiotics are easily available over the counter in many low- and middle-income countries, which means “unregulated medicines are still available in places such as street markets, with no limits on how they are used,” it said.