Scientists have a “50-50” chance of salvaging existing antibiotics from bacteria which has become resistant to its effects, according to Dr David Brown.
Antibiotic Research UK director says chances of salvaging most important drugs are 50-50 after resistant bacteria found in pigs and humans in England and Wales.
The Guardian view on antibiotic resistance: a clear and present danger
The director at Antibiotic Research UK, whose discoveries helped make more than £20bn ($30bn) in pharmaceutical sales, said efforts to find new antibiotics are “totally failing” despite significant investment and research.
It comes after a gene was discovered which makes infectious bacteria resistant to the last line of antibiotic defence, colistin (polymyxins).
The resistance to the colistin antibiotic is considered to be a “major step” towards completely untreatable infections and has been found in pigs and humans in England and Wales.
Public Health England said the risk posed to humans by the mcr-1 gene was “low” but was being monitored closely.
Performing surgery, treating infections and even travelling abroad safely all rely to some extent on access to effective antibiotics.
It is feared the crisis could further penetrate Europe as displaced migrants enter from a war-torn Middle East, where countries such as Syria have increasing levels of antibiotic resistance.
Dr Brown told said: “It is almost too late. We needed to start research 10 years ago and we still have no global monitoring system in place.
“The issue is people have tried to find new antibiotics but it is totally failing – there has been no new chemical class of drug to treat gram-negative infections for more than 40 years.
“I think we have got a 50-50 chance of salvaging the most important antibiotics but we need to stop agriculture from ruining it again.”
Resistance is thought to have grown due to colistin being heavily used in pockets of the agricultural industries, particularly in China, often to increase the physical size of livestock.
In the UK, nearly half of all antibiotics used are in farming, according to reports, although the use of it as a growth agent has been banned in the EU since 2006.
The unnecessary prescription and use of antibiotics as a form of treatment is also believed to be an aggravating factor.
Although the imminent threat of the resistant bacteria spreading throughout the UK remains small, it could worsen in Europe next year, Dr Brown added.
He said: “In 2016, a number of factors are going to come together – including the effects of the migration crisis.
The stories you need to read, in one handy email
“I think, for the time being, northern Europe will be okay. Southern Europe, places such as Italy and Greece, and the Middle East are more under threat because of weaker health systems and weaker monitoring systems. India, especially, could be in real trouble.
“The migration crisis will probably not be helping anything as a lot of people coming over from Syria could be bringing bugs.
“People are getting a sick a lot more often there because of sanitation. Once one bug has got resistance, it can pass it to another.”
Despite European Union regulations aiming to cut back on the unnecessary use of antibiotics, Dr Brown believes it will take more than just legislation to tackle the superbug crisis.
Market forces will need to be compelled to cut usage, perhaps when prompted by a shift in public opinion, he said.
“Those with a vested interest find ways around legislation. So, in addition to public policy we will need also the power of market forces,” he added.
“When the public start demanding meat that has not seen antibiotics – because they understand that the meat may contain antibiotic resistant bacteria – only then will real progress be made. We need education about the threat.”
Government scientists re-examined 24,000 samples of bacteria from food and humans in the UK following the discovery of mcr-1 in China in November and found the gene in just 15 samples.
The Soil Association said the mcr-1 was found in E. coli from two pig farms, in stored E. coli from a pig and in three E. coli samples from two human patients, which were also found to be resistant to other antibiotics.
It was also found in 10 human salmonella infections and in salmonella from a single imported sample of poultry meat. The earliest British positive sample was a salmonella from 2012.