Microbiologists react: Health Secretary comments on access to antibiotics

17 October 2022


Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is an insidious and silent pandemic that is already happening, when bacteria are exposed to levels of antibiotics that do not kill them, they develop ways to overcome further treatments. The latest figures reveal that an estimated 1.2 million people died in 2019 as a direct result of antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections and that AMR will cause over 10 million deaths per year by 2050, which is more than deaths from cancer and diabetes combined, and more than the current COVID-19 death toll.

At the Microbiology Society, we believe this data should urge the Government to prioritise efforts and funding on the multiple solutions necessary to combat AMR. Many of our members are involved in pioneering interdisciplinary research and innovation projects, and some have become passionate advocates calling for more action, and less talk, on antimicrobial resistance.

Following media reports on comments by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on access to antibiotics, our expert members respond:

Tina Joshi, co-Chair of the Microbiology Society’s Impact and Influence Committee and Associate Professor in Molecular Microbiology at Plymouth said:

“The Health Secretary’s recent comments are worrying and indicate a lack of understanding of antibiotic resistance. Modern medicine is underpinned by antibiotic use, and it’s a huge issue that bacteria are becoming resistant to the drugs we use to treat them. Increasing access to antibiotics must be carefully reviewed; we have very few new antibiotics in the commercial pipeline globally to tackle AMR. We would welcome the Health Secretary’s response to our statement/concerns and seek to open a dialogue to understand how she will implement her plans to safely increase GP access for patients across the UK. We hope that these plans will not be at the expense of our current world-leading progress in antimicrobial stewardship.”

Chloe James, co-Chair of the Microbiology Society’s Impact and Influence Committee and Chair in Microbiology at the University of Salford said:

“Improper use of antibiotics has driven antimicrobial resistance to become one of the most challenging global issues faced by society this century. It is crucial that we act now to preserve the utility of antibiotics by encouraging their responsible use, which includes only taking directly prescribed treatments and completing the full course. Misinformation from people in positions of power is really dangerous and can severely undermine the work tackling such an important health issue that affects everyone.”

Mathew Upton, Microbiology Society member and Professor of Medical Microbiology at the University of Plymouth, said:

“Antibiotic drug discovery is extremely difficult in the current financial climate, with investors cautious about engaging in R&D and not yet convinced that the new funding models being trialled will make discovery work profitable. Statements like those made by the Health Secretary undermine the significance of antibiotics as crucial medicines that we must invest in and protect, instead giving the impression that they can be distributed freely by unqualified people. It is unhelpful and dangerous.”

Kat Holt, Microbiology Society member and Professor of Microbial Systems Genomics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said:

“If pharmacists are going to be prescribing antibiotics in England, they need to be very well-supported in this with state-of-the-art training and guidance in antimicrobial stewardship, else the important progress made in reducing unnecessary antibiotic use will be lost and AMR will increase.”

Willem van Schaik, member of the Microbiology Society, Editor of Microbiology, Director of the Institute of Microbiology and Infection and Professor of Microbiology and Infection at the University of Birmingham said:

“For many years the UK has been one of the global leaders in the fight against rising tide antimicrobial resistance and this has resulted in real progress with many countries, across the world, now having antibiotic stewardship programs in place. It would be absolutely terrible, in terms of public health but also from the perspective of our global reputation as a leader in science and technology, if we squander this position with a poorly thought-through plan.”

Catrin Moore, co-Chair Elect of the Microbiology Society’s Impact and Influence Committee and Research Group Leader in Global Burden of Antimicrobial Resistance at the Big Data Institute, University of Oxford said:

“The news that pharmacists in England may be able to prescribe antibiotics for patients is alarming, to say the least. Our work in the GRAM study showed that 1.27 million people died globally because of AMR in 2019, and the World Bank estimated that unchecked AMR will cost $100 trillion in cumulative global cost by 2050. The inappropriate use of antibiotics is one of the drivers of antibiotic resistance globally. Here in the UK, we have been leading the fight on AMR up until now, urging other countries not to have over-the-counter prescribing. Unless carefully implemented, the decision to allow pharmacists to prescribe antibiotics could have wide-ranging implications, putting into jeopardy all the work that has been done to combat AMR.”

Notes to editors

If you would like more information please contact the Microbiology Society: [email protected]

The Microbiology Society is a membership charity for scientists interested in microbes, their effects and their practical uses. It is one of the largest microbiology societies in Europe with a worldwide membership based in universities, industry, hospitals, research institutes and schools.

Our principle goal is to develop, expand and strengthen the networks available to our members so that they can generate new knowledge about microbes and ensure that it is shared with other communities. The impacts from this will drive us towards a world in which the science of microbiology provides maximum benefit to society.