WHO Releases List of Pathogens That Threaten Human Health

Pathogen list is meant to increase research and development of new antibiotics.

Yesterday, the World Health Organization (WHO) published the first list of “priority pathogens,” which consists of 12 families of bacteria that are considered to be a threat to human health. The list was created to promote research and development of novel antibiotics that can treat the dangerous pathogens, according to a press release.

This latest effort is a part of the organization’s widespread initiative to address drug-resistant bacteria that is affecting health around the world.

Specifically, the new list highlights the threat multi-drug resistant gram-negative bacteria poses. These bacteria continuously discovers new ways to resist antibiotics, and can pass drug-resistant genetic material to other bacteria to spread resistance, WHO reported.

"This list is a new tool to ensure R&D responds to urgent public health needs," said Marie-Paule Kieny, PhD, WHO's assistant director-general for Health Systems and Innovation. "Antibiotic resistance is growing, and we are fast running out of treatment options. If we leave it to market forces alone, the new antibiotics we most urgently need are not going to be developed in time."

The list is divided into categories based on the need of new antibiotics: critical, high, and medium priority.

A majority of the drug-bacteria categorized as critical are present in hospitals, nursing homes, and patients who require treatment with ventilators and blood catheters, according to the press release. Bacteria such as Acinetobacter Pseudomonas and Enterobacteriaceae, such as Klebsiella, E. coli, Serratia, and Proteus are included in this group.

The critical cohort of bacteria have been observed to cause fatal infections, such as bloodstream infections and pneumonia. These bacteria have become resistant to antibiotics, including carbapenems and third generation cephalosporins used to treat multi-drug resistant bacteria.

The high and medium categories include other drug-resistant bacteria that cause common diseases, such as gonorrhea and salmonella-linked food poisoning, according to WHO.

The Group of 20 (G20) health experts plan to meet soon to discuss this issue at length. G20 is an international forum for 20 major economies, including the United States and Canada.

"We need effective antibiotics for our health systems. We have to take joint action today for a healthier tomorrow,” said Hermann Gröhe, federal minister of health, Germany. “Therefore, we will discuss and bring the attention of the G20 to the fight against antimicrobial resistance. WHO’s first global priority pathogen list is an important new tool to secure and guide research and development related to new antibiotics."

The new list is intended to encourage governments to create policies that motivate research and development for novel antibiotics. Additionally, it will provide guidance for new programs, such as the WHO/Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative Global Antibiotic R&D Partnership, which focuses on non-profit antibiotic development, according to the press release.

WHO did not include tuberculosis due to other targeted programs created for it, and also did not include streptococcus A and B, and chlamydia, since they have low levels of resistance and are considered to be a low threat level.

Although additional research is needed, it cannot address antibiotic resistance alone. Prevention and appropriate use measures in humans and animals should be revisited, and a strategy for new antibiotics should also be created in the future, according to the press release.

"New antibiotics targeting this priority list of pathogens will help to reduce deaths due to resistant infections around the world," said Evelina Tacconelli, MD, PhD, head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Tübingen, a major contributor to the list. "Waiting any longer will cause further public health problems and dramatically impact on patient care."