EMA launches review of 'last-resort' antibiotic after scientists ID resistance gene

The 50-year-old antibiotic colistin is widely used to treat bacterial infections in both animals and people that have become resistant to other drugs. But last year, scientists in China discovered a gene called mcr-1 that makes bacteria resistant to colistin, prompting some scientists to urge regulatory agencies to issue stricter guidelines for the use of the antibiotic in farm animals.

Now the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is answering the call. The agency announced on Jan. 11 that it received a request from the European Commission for revised guidelines on the use of colistin in animals. In 2013, the EMA issued new guidelines suggesting that the drug only be used for treating infected animals and those who had come in close contact with them--not for preventing illnesses--but now the agency is considering further restrictions, it says. Concerns have been on the rise since mcr-1 was found in meat products, including pork, collected in both China and Europe.

"Because of its important role as a last defense against antimicrobial resistant bacteria, the Agency will consider if its 2013 advice on the responsible use of colistin in animals, particularly pigs, needs to be updated in light of the recent discovery," the EMA said in a press release. The agency expects to finalize any revision of its guidelines within 6 months.

The EMA's review is the latest initiative taken by a major regulatory body to restrict the use of antibiotics in food production, in the hopes of stemming the rise of so-called superbugs that are resistant to the drugs. In 2013, the FDA introduced its "judicious use" rules for antibiotics in food animals, giving U.S. producers three years to comply with new guidelines. The rules have been slow to be embraced, however: A report released in December revealed that antibiotics sales to the food industry actually rose 4% between 2013 and 2014.

The FDA is now working with the CDC and the USDA to implement systems for collecting data on antibiotics use. The agencies hope to begin reporting detailed data on how the drugs are used in the food industry in 2018.

Not everyone is convinced that the anti-antibiotics movement is in the best interest of the animals, however. Carel du Marchie Sarvaas, the executive director of the international trade group HealthforAnimals, said last June that antibiotics remain an essential tool for preventing the spread of some infectious diseases among animals. HealthforAnimals is urging world leaders to promote research collaborations aimed at developing innovative methods for combating antibiotic resistance.

- here's the EMA's press release
- get more at Reuters