UN General Assembly to tackle antibiotic resistance for the first time

The UN is planning a one-day meeting on antibiotic resistance, a problem believed to be related to use of the drugs in food animals.

The United Nations' General Assembly rarely addresses health challenges, but on September 21 the international gathering will take on an issue that has become a global challenge for both animal and human health professionals: antibiotic resistance. During a one-day meeting at its headquarters in New York City, the UN will host several representatives from the animal health industry, including Eli Lilly’s ($LLY) Elanco, Merck ($MRK) and Zoetis ($ZTS), who will engage in a discussion that includes consumer advocacy groups, academics and Big Pharma giants like GlaxoSmithKline ($GSK), according to an announcement.

The prime objective is to “summon and maintain strong national, regional and international political commitment in addressing antimicrobial resistance comprehensively and multi-sectorally, and to increase and improve awareness of antimicrobial resistance,” according to the UN. The organization is encouraging cooperation between pharmaceutical companies, governments, physicians and veterinarians--an approach known throughout the world as One Health.

The UN is also hoping to clarify the role of the World Health Organization (WHO), which earlier this year released a global action plan on antimicrobial resistance. The plan lays out 5 key initiatives, including improved surveillance of antibiotic-resistant bugs, reducing infection rates in animals and increasing the focus on optimizing antibiotics use. Some animal health advocates were concerned the plan would spark an overreaction. Now, experts are hoping the UN will help bring harmony to the global effort.

“This is only the fourth time the General Assembly has addressed a health issue, and the others rose to the level of HIV and Ebola,” said Keiji Fukuda, a physician and the special representative for the World Health Organization, in an interview with National Geographic. “Hopefully what will be achieved is to have the highest-level decision-makers in the world acknowledge that we have a major issue that has to be addressed, and also have that level acknowledge that certain actions are needed.”

Animal health companies have been active participants in global discussions on antibiotic resistance, because the widespread use of the drugs in the production of  food animals is believed to have sparked the rise of so-called superbugs in people. Zoetis, Merck and Elanco were among several companies that attended the White House Forum on Antibiotic Stewardship in June 2015 and laid out plans that included investing research funds into finding alternative medicines for combating infections.

Elanco, for example, has an 8-step plan that includes examining 25 nonantibiotic drug candidates. As part of that plan, the company announced a research pact this past June with EnBiotix, a company that’s developing engineered “phage” technology for use in animal health. The platform uses bacteriophages, naturally occurring viruses that replicate inside of bacterial cells and kill them but don’t otherwise cause illness.

As for the UN meeting, a group of antibiotics researchers have been trying to steer the agenda by publishing papers in high-profile journals, National Geographic reports. In Science, they requested that the UN model the antimicrobial-resistance effort after its work in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. They suggested reducing access to antibiotics for agriculture in high-income countries, but at the same time protecting access in developing countries that need the drugs to protect human health. They also published a paper in The Lancet asking the UN to coordinate the spending of funds for antibiotics research granted to governments and foundations, as it did in response to the AIDS crisis.

“We are calling for what has worked in the past,” Ramanan Laxminarayan, founder of the nonprofit Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy, told National Geographic.

- here’s the UN’s announcement
- get the list of meeting attendees here
- read more at National Geographic

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