The World Health Organization has warned that none of the antibiotics currently being developed against antimicrobial resistance are enough to tackle drug-resistant bacteria that are expected to kill millions by 2050.

In a report published recently, the WHO said none of the 43 such drugs in the pipeline addressed the 13 most dangerous superbugs it had identified.  Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) has been described by experts as a silent pandemic.

Research suggests the spread of bugs that tolerate drugs kills about 700,000 people a year, a figure that could rise to 10m by 2050 – the same number of lives claimed by cancer each year.

While observers and industry members had expressed hope the current pandemic could alert the world to the perils of under-investment in new drug research, progress has been stymied by on crucial problem: AMR drugs should be used as sparingly as possible, offering little commercial incentive for drug-makers to invest in research and development.

The 2020 report finds the antibiotic pipeline is “near static”, with only a few new drugs approved by regulators in recent years. Most of these offer little benefit compared with existing ones, or are variations of antibiotic drugs classes discovered in the 1980s. A number of pharmaceutical companies have given up on antibiotic development altogether because it is unprofitable.

Bacteria that cause pneumonia or sepsis are becoming more and more resistant to existing drugs, a process that has been accelerated by antibiotic misuse in humans and animals, according to Peter Beyer, interim head of the WHO’s global co-ordination department on AMR.

The report also highlights new classes of promising therapies including phages – viruses that eat up bacteria; antibodies; and immune therapies that weaken the effect of bacteria. There are also a number of initiatives aimed at enticing investors and companies to act.

Still, scientists insist that because antibiotics are so prevalent and used to treat a wide array of infections in key healthcare settings, and delay in action could be costly.