HEALTH

Here Are The ‘Most Wanted’ Superbugs That Desperately Need New Drugs

The World Health Organization lists 12 germs, including those that cause gonorrhea and chronic ulcers, that are becoming untreatable

HEALTH
Illustration: Vocativ
Feb 27, 2017 at 1:30 PM ET

The World Health Organization has just released its own version of the FBI’s Most Wanted List, but its fugitives are much more elusive than any single person could be.

On Monday, the WHO published a rogues’ gallery of the antibiotic-resistant bacteria that are the most high-priority targets for new drugs. The list, created at the behest of the WHO’s member states, is made up of 12 bacterial families, and it’s further categorized by the level of urgent attention they deserve. The superbugs range from common infections, like the germ behind the STD gonorrhea, to those rarer but nearly untreatable with conventional drugs, such as a family of bacteria called Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) that can resist the last line of effective antibiotics we have available.

“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 most crucial superbugs, which includes CRE, are all often deadly hospital infections that are resistant to the last-line of antibiotics called carbapenems. What makes these germs even more dangerous is that because of their structure, they’re hard to treat with antibiotics in the first place. And by the time they’ve picked up the gene mutations that lets them shrug off carbapenems, some strains have already learned to rebuff every other antibiotic in the arsenal, making them pan-resistant.

More The Attack Of The Superbugs

Those under the high priority category include less hardy but still dangerous bacteria like Staphylococcus aureus strains that are resistant to common antibiotics as well as vancomycin, a last-resort drug for staph; Salmonella strains that are resistant to fluoroquinolones and cause food poisoning; and Helicobacter pylori strains that are resistant to the first line drug clarithromycin and often cause chronic ulcers. And those under the medium priority umbrella include resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae, a common cause of pneumonia and ear infections, and resistant Shigella, a foodborne germ.

Though the list does include many of the most dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria around, their order doesn’t necessarily reflect their overall public health priority. Rather, it’s intended as a spotlight for superbugs that need more funding and research. Indeed, one notable absence is multidrug-resistant tuberculosis, left off because there are already well-established programs aimed at driving down rates of resistant TB and developing new drugs.

Health agencies like the Centers for the Disease Control and Prevention have created their own superbug list in recent years, though, more explicitly based on their public health threat. But just like the WHO’s list, CREs are at the top of the heap.

It’s expected that antibiotic resistance, and the WHO’s list, will be one of the topics discussed at a preliminary conference of the G20 summit to be held later this week in Berlin, Germany. The annual summit itself, an international forum of representatives from 20 major economies brought together to discuss global issues, will be held later this July in Hamburg.