Today, antibiotic-resistant bacteria kill 700,000 people worldwide. Unchecked, that number could grow to 10 million by 2050. But there is hope. Bill Mudge, director of the new (and fabulous!) documentary “Beating Superbugs: Can We Win?” gives us the scoop.
Q: Why did you decide to make this film?
A: I first started reading about antibiotic-resistant bacteria more than 10 years ago. Doctors and researchers knew something ominous was happening, but the general public was only vaguely aware that the antibiotics we have taken for granted since World War II might no longer work. I saw a need to bring these stories together and to highlight the best scientific, economic and political solutions.
Q: We created a vaccine for the coronavirus in less than a year. Why not develop new antibiotics?
A: The problem is, there's no way for companies to make good money. Antibiotics are comparatively cheap drugs, and are prescribed for only a week or so a few times in your life. (Meanwhile drugs for chronic illnesses are expensive and often prescribed for a lifetime.) In essence, modern capitalism tells companies to ignore antibiotics.
There are ways to make developing new drugs faster and cheaper. For example, artificial intelligence-driven processes helped to identify the new drug Halicin much faster than the usual 15 years it takes to get a new drug. But it’s important to stress that preserving the effectiveness of current drugs is far easier than developing new ones. Doing that takes discipline that we're only just starting to have.
Q: We love this film because it highlights solutions--which are out there! Tell us about some promising ones.
A: That’s the exciting part. There’s phage therapy, which uses a cocktail of viruses to treat bacterial infections. Scientists are also using gene editing to re-engineer antibiotics, or even the superbugs themselves to fight new resistant strains. Antibiotic resistance will never stop completely; it's nature's way of adapting to change. But we can slow and contain antibiotic resistance. We can choose foods made with few or no antibiotics; accept our doctors' decision not to prescribe them except when we really need them, and push big pharma, government and researchers to restart R&D for new antibiotics.