Lord O’Neill highlights importance of rapid diagnosis for tackling drug resistance

09 Jun 2017

Written by Longitude team

Lord O’Neill of Gatley has stressed how vital advances in diagnostic testing will be in preventing the unnecessary use of antibiotics that’s fuelling drug resistance.

Speaking at the NAMRIP summer conference in Southampton earlier this week, Lord O’Neill said that, while antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is a complex problem that no single intervention alone will solve, “state-of-the-art rapid diagnostics could be a game-changer”.

In his keynote speech at the conference, Lord O’Neill gave the background to the government’s AMR Review which he led from 2014 – 2016, along with updates on progress made so far since the findings were published in May last year.

He shared how the fact that he was an economist, rather than a scientist, was a big part of the reason he was asked to lead the review by Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, who recognised the importance of translating the economic impact of drug resistance, and how vital this would be for driving policy change.

The scale of the problem

Lord O’Neill discussed a few of the key statistics that emerged from the review, which helped quantify the potential scale of the problem for those outside of the scientific community.

Firstly, the review found that, if we carry on along the same path, an estimated 10 million people will die each year from drug-resistant infections, including one million each in China and India, by 2050. This is more than the number of deaths currently caused by cancer each year.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the economic impact, the accumulated loss of GDP over 35 years (to 2050) was estimated at around $100.2 trillion, if this problem is left unchecked. This figure is larger than the entire world economy.

The review outlined a 10-point plan for tackling drug resistance, which includes both measures to increase the supply of new antimicrobial medicines and those to reduce the demand for these drugs in the first place.

Speaking about the role new diagnostic tools could play, Lord O’Neill said: “Why are we pressuring doctors to prescribe antibiotics and allowing doctors to guess whether they are necessary?

“We need ‘Google for doctors’. State-of-the-art diagnostics could be a dramatic game-changer for shifting the demand curve.”

Lord O’Neill also looked at the issue of AMR in comparison to the ebola outbreak. While the latter resulted in a tragic loss of life, he noted that more than twice as many people around the world died from drug-resistant infections during this time. While the ebola outbreak prompted a huge global response, there’s still much work to be done to raise awareness of AMR and prevent its rise.

Progress since the review

However, he noted that a number of promising steps have been taken since the review was published, not least a global declaration from 193 countries to tackle this global problem at a UN High Level Meeting – a milestone moment for global health.

Likewise, we know that many innovators around the world are working hard to address this problem from different angles. Rapid diagnostics is the focus of the Longitude Prize, our global competition with a £10million prize fund to find a test that can help curb the unnecessary use of antibiotics. The test needs to be rapid, delivering results in under 30 minutes, portable and easy-to-use by people with limited training at the point-of-care, wherever it is needed around the world. Find out more about the criteria for the prize here.

Finally, Lord O’Neill added that public engagement was also key to reducing the demand side of this problem. He applauded the hands-on exhibits at the event, including ‘the most dangerous game in the world’, an arcade-style exhibit that features our mobile game, Superbugs, saying that these sorts of exhibits should be shared far and wide.