The Obama administration has announced a range of measures to combat antibiotic resistance that threatens to render much of our arsenal of drugs useless in the face of disease.
Already more than 20,000 lives are lost every year because bacteria have become resistance to available antibiotics. Nowhere is the problem more acute than with the scourge of TB around the world.
This is a “top national security and public health priority”, says John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The strategy to control the problem will include the development of new drugs, better control of the use of existing treatments, and improved monitoring processes.
Cheaper and more efficient genome-sequencing technology will be a key tool as it helps scientists get a better idea of how infections develop and – a crucial question – how antibiotic use on livestock is adding to the problem of resistance.
"Genetic differences between bacteria can be used to sketch out a molecular 'family tree', which would allow researchers to trace an outbreak and scour it for telltale similarities or differences," the report says.
"With traditional methods of characterizing antibiotic-resistant bacteria, it was difficult to answer these questions. In the past few years, however, advances in rapid and inexpensive DNA-sequencing technology have made it possible to extract answers from bacterial genomes."
According to the New York Times, Americans use more antibiotics than people in other industrialised nations...
...with rates more than twice those in Germany and the Netherlands, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, a Washington-based research and advocacy group. The United States also uses far more antibiotics in livestock than many other nations; animals raised for food in America are given about six times as much antibiotics as are animals in Norway and Denmark.
Cosmos highlighted the issue of antibiotic use in livestock a few months back when we investigated how these drugs got into the food chain and what affect they are having.
They were introduced by Thomas H. Jukes, a distinguished professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a pioneer in the new science of molecular biology. Before that, though, he had worked in the pharmaceutical industry for Lederle, where he discovered in 1948 that chickens fed a new antibiotic were growing faster than those without.
Jukes was very much a man of his time when there was a wider belief that science could solve all ills.
Jukes formed his ideas in an age of medical miracles, and firmly believed in the power of science to conquer sickness and hunger. So he also defended the use of DDT against malaria, even calling attempts to ban the insecticide “unquestionably genocidal”. When the prescription drug DES, or diethylstilbestrol, became notorious in the 1970s for causing birth defects and cancers in young women, Jukes argued for its continued use as a growth promoter in cattle, saying the risk to consumers was minuscule...
Now antibiotics are so widely used, and vested interests so powerful any reduction of their use will be hard to achieve.
The food industry has long argued that any limit on use of antibiotics in livestock feed would be an agricultural disaster, or at least the end of affordable meat. But critics are applying increasing pressure on the industry to address its share of the blame for an epidemic of antibiotic-resistant infections that kills hundreds of thousands of people worldwide each year.
Perhaps the White House's new aggressive strategy – the first of its kind – will tip the scales towards the critics' arguments. But even it does, it will be a long and bruising fight.