Deadly Superbugs Could Cost $100 Trillion by 2050

Drug-resistant superbugs could cost the global economy as much as $100 trillion between now and 2050, a threat that warrants as much attention as climate change, according to a review led by economist Jim O’Neill.

If unchecked, the infections may mean 10 million extra deaths a year, with an impact on global wealth roughly equivalent to losing the U.K.’s economic output every year, O’Neill, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. economist, told reporters in London yesterday.

The analysis, commissioned by U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron in July, highlights the growing problem of antibiotic resistance and calls for “coherent international action” on drug regulation and use. A continuing review will explore topics such as how to stimulate the development of antimicrobial medicines and the potential of alternative therapies such as vaccines.

“This is a significant global problem, perhaps on the same dimension as climate change,” O’Neill said. “Trying to solve it is a bit like climate change. The cost of stopping the problem is significantly lower than the cost of not stopping the problem.”

The projection of 10 million deaths a year by 2050 is greater than the current annual death toll from cancer, which is about 8.2 million, according to the report.

Global Issue

Drug-resistant superbugs now account for at least 700,000 deaths a year, and the problem isn’t limited to the developing world. While Africa and Asia will see the most deaths by 2050, mortality may reach almost 400,000 in both Europe and Latin America, and more than 300,000 in North America.

“The world needs to get serious about tackling the rise in antibiotics resistance,” Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury secretary and president emeritus of Harvard University, said in a statement. “Ignoring the tide of drug-resistant infections risks rolling back the hard-won medical advances of the last century.”

Antibiotic resistance has become so acute that a post-antibiotic era in which common infections and minor injuries lead to death is a possibility this century, the World Health Organization said in April. Overuse of antibiotics among humans and farm animals is the main culprit.

Drugmaker Solutions

While many companies stopped developing anti-infection drugs years ago to focus on the treatment of more profitable chronic illnesses such as cancer and heart disease, others are seeing an opportunity and a growing unmet need.

Cubist Pharmaceuticals Inc. sells three medicines for hard-to-treat infections and has four others in the pipeline, making it the world leader in antibiotics. Merck & Co., the second-biggest U.S. drugmaker, agreed this week to buy Cubist for $8.4 billion, a vindication for the smaller company, which toiled for two decades on an area largely neglected by the rest of the industry.

The analysis published today was conducted by accounting firm KPMG and the RAND Corporation with input from scientists. The group studied the future impact of resistance for six common infections: three bacterial infections including E. coli, as well as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV.

Further reports from the U.K.-commissioned panel will be published through the summer of 2016.

O’Neill, the former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, is also a Bloomberg View columnist.

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