Priority Pathogens List Published by WHO

CC BY-ND 2.0. United States Mission Geneva

Imagine if going to the doctor for a routine procedure becomes an almost certain death sentence.

Wonderful quality of life improvements like joint replacements would be off the shelf. Life-saving interventions like organ replacements would only buy enough days for the deadly pathogens hanging around hospitals to assert control. Even giving birth could once again threaten the life of mother and child at unacceptable rates.

Life as we know it would no longer be possible, the ability to control infections stymied by the resistance of new superbugs to all known antibiotics. It's no wonder the words "apocalyptic scenario" have been applied to the rise and spread of superbugs.

Can we count on the drug companies to save us? Marie-Paule Kieny, the World Health Organization's assistant director-general for health systems and innovation, says don't count on it:

"Just when resistance to antibiotics is reaching alarming proportions, the pipeline is practically dry. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time."

This prompted the World Health Organization (WHO) to publish the first ever list of antibiotic-resistant "priority pathogens." The WHO hopes the list will prompt governments and companies to promote the development of new antibiotics...a class of drugs that usually does not receive the big bucks for research and development, because the drugs are taken for only days or weeks, and the profit margin just isn't there. The 12 priority pathogens are ranked as critical (3 species), high (6), and medium (3) priority based on "how deadly the infections they cause are; whether their treatment requires long hospital stays; how frequently they are resistant to existing antibiotics when people in communities catch them; how easily they spread between animals, from animals to humans, and from person to person; whether they can be prevented (e.g. through good hygiene and vaccination); how many treatment options remain; and whether new antibiotics to treat them are already in the R&D; pipeline."

Ironically, the answer to this list of the species that threaten us might be found on the lists of species that we are threatening to extinction. In a recent example, journalists had fun highlighting the secrets of dragon's blood after a group of scientists announced finding 47 protein-related compounds in Komodo dragon blood that show great promise of effectiveness against some of the priority pathogens.

But we shouldn't drop our guard based on the hope that dragon's blood will save the day. Policy makers responsible for public health need to take the priority pathogens seriously. Seriously.