Watch: Superbug threat to human race ‘more certain’ than climate change – inquiry chief
Economist investigating threat of return to medical ‘dark ages’ predicts 10 million a year could die within a generation
The threat to the human race from deadly new disease strains resistant to drugs is “more certain” than that from climate change, the head of a new review set up by David Cameron into the crisis has insisted.
Up to 10 million people a year could die as a result of superbugs and drug resistant strains of diseases such as malaria within a generation unless urgent action is taken, according to projections calculated by a team led by Jim O’Neill, the City economist.
Yet despite widespread agreement among scientists about the scale of the threat the public is largely unaware, he warned.
The inquiry was set up earlier this year to search urgently for solutions to a problem Mr Cameron said threatened to cast the world "back into the dark ages of medicine".
In an initial assessment Mr O’Neill set out a Doomsday scenario, warning that without concerted global action to find new treatments and dramatically reduce overprescribing 300 million people could die in the next 35 years from currently treatable conditions.
According to projections, using modelling designed by economists at KPMG and RAND, by 2050 so-called Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) could claim a similar number of lives every year as cancer, cholera, diabetes, measles, tetanus, diarrheal conditions and all the road traffic accidents in the world combined.
The massive loss of life could wipe out around £64 trillion of global productivity in the next 35 years – the equivalent of the entire GDP of the UK every year for a generation, it found.
But Mr O’Neill insisted that the estimates are likely to be conservative and the financial impact could be twice as much when the cost of new, more complicated procedures for routine operations such as hip replacements and caesarean sections are taken into account
Mr O’Neill said he had consulted closely with Lord Stern, the President of the Royal Academy who carried out a landmark investigation into the threat from climate change for Tony Blair, about parallels between the two threats and possible responses.
But he added that, despite the vastly higher public profile of climate change in comparison with drug resistance, there is greater consensus about the danger to humanity from the latter.
“It feels to me, from the scientific knowledge, that there is more certainty about this being a problem,” he said.
“Now I’m somebody that is very sympathetic to the climate change case … but, with the kind of debate that goes on and data, it feels to me that there is more certainty about this becoming a problem over a reasonably short time period.
He added: “In some ways to try and solve is a little bit like climate change, because we are talking about the problem getting a lot bigger in the future than it is today and what we are presuming … that the cost of stopping the problem is significantly lower than the cost of not stopping it.
Over the next year and a half the inquiry will assess possible solutions to the situation as the basis for a future international agreement.
Lord Stern said: “Wise policy looks ahead and tries to manage risks, particularly the big ones.
“There can be no doubt now that Antimicrobial Resistance is one of the biggest we – all of us – face.”
The inquiry’s initial estimates suggest that while the crisis will affect rich and poor countries alike the developing world will bear the brunt.
It estimates that in India alone two million people a year could die as a result of drug resistance by 2050 and another million in China. That in turn would have a dramatic impact on the world economy.
In Nigeria, one in four of all deaths by 2050 could be a result of AMR, according to the projections while in Indonesia 300,000 could die, primarily from new resistant strains of malaria.