COVID19 is a wake-up call in the fight against antibiotic resistance

05.03.21 | News
Corona pandemi
Ricky Molloy
In the long term, the global death toll from antibiotic resistance may be higher than that of COVID-19, and the pandemic may well be the wake-up call we needed to do something about it. The Nordic Council Welfare Committee has just concluded a debate with MEPs, researchers and industry figures about antibiotic resistance. Committee chair Bente Stein Mathisen and vice-chair Nina Sandberg would like the Nordic countries to work together on a regulatory framework for the production of new antibiotics.

“The consequences of antibiotic resistance are colossal, and in a pandemic context, they could be devastating to world health,” Bente Mathisen said at the start of the webinar. Along with Nina Sandberg, she called for the Nordic governments to work together to facilitate the production of new types of antibiotics and reduce the overuse of existing ones in a partnership involving the Nordic Region, the rest of Europe and industry.  


Health’s climate crisis

The background for both the proposal and the webinar is decades of global overuse of antibiotics in the treatment of humans and of animals in agriculture, which has led to bacteria capable of resisting existing antibiotics. In her presentation to the webinar, Professor Åsa Melhus of Uppsala University showed that by 2050 the global death toll due to antibiotic resistance will be much higher than the COVID19 death toll so far. This is why antibiotic resistance is also known as the 'quiet' pandemic or 'health’s climate crisis'. 


The consequences of antibiotic resistance are colossal, and in a pandemic context, they could be devastating to world health 

Bente Stein Mathisen – Chair of the Nordic Council Welfare Committee

Public-private partnership

It has been decades since the pharmaceutical industry produced new types of antibiotics. Anders Fallang of Pfizer AS points out that the regulatory frameworks for the industry make it difficult for manufacturers to convince themselves and investors that it would be worthwhile.

"It’s a gamble. It takes time and costs money, and if the prospect of any return on investment is too small, people will invest elsewhere”, he says.

Bente Mathisen is willing to consider financial incentives to encourage the production of new antibiotics. Christel Schaldemose MEP (DK) backed that idea but called for a cost/benefit formula to make sure that governments recoup any investment if new types of antibiotics prove to be profitable.


COVID-19 can pave the way

At the webinar, COVID-19 was described as a wake-up call that shows how important it is that health agencies are geared up to meet needs in times of crisis – such as now with COVID-19 – but also in the future. Professor Gunnar Skov Simonsen of the University of Tromsø pointed out that COVID-19 has boosted awareness of health – health in general, preventive measures and the production of new medicines – all of which may have a positive impact on views of how important it is to combat antibiotic resistance.     


The Nordic Council continues the fight

Jessica Polfjärd, a member of the EU Parliament ENVI Committee, acknowledged Nordic work to combat resistance, referring to the fact that agriculture in the Region tends to use fewer antibiotics than is the case elsewhere in Europe. Nina Sandberg told the seminar how the Welfare Committee has been working on the issue for a number of years. This work is based on a Nordic Council White Paper containing 12  recommendations for combating antibiotic resistance. The White Paper builds on the Könberg Report on health, part of which focused on the extent and severity of antibiotic resistance, a phenomenon that still very much poses a problem.