Health awareness

Answering your most pressing questions on antimicrobial resistance

An informative Q&A with early discovery researcher Todd Black, Ph.D., executive director, infectious diseases

April 20, 2020

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As the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic, there is also the growing threat of antibiotic resistance – bacteria that are not killed by standard antibiotics and thrive in hospital settings. Dr. Black breaks down antibiotic resistance and Merck’s role in exploring how we fight bacteria in entirely new ways as we think beyond the pandemic.

What is antibiotic resistance and how are we responding?

During the past 80 years, antibiotics have saved an untold number of lives worldwide. More recently, rising levels of resistance to some of these medicines have become a serious threat to public health. Resistance is when bacteria develop the ability to overcome the medicines we use to eliminate them. As a result, antibiotics become less effective, common infections become harder to treat, and those infections can become more dangerous. This is a global crisis – and we need to address it now. It is imperative that the scientific community, including me and my fellow Merck Research Laboratories (MRL) scientists around the world, explore how we fight bacteria in entirely new ways.

At MRL, we are expanding our efforts to address antibiotic resistance by searching for new ways to address this crisis, including a focus on targeting those bacteria most commonly associated with resistance.

Why are these antibiotic-resistant pathogens so much harder to treat?

The problem is multifold. First, resistant pathogens – or ‘superbugs’ – have unique defenses that continually and rapidly evolve. It is survival of the fittest and the bugs want to survive beyond the treatment. Despite significant research and development efforts over the past several decades, it has been challenging to develop new approaches that successfully target these superbugs. To give you a sense of the magnitude of the crisis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 2.8 million antibiotic-resistant infections occur each year in the U.S. Without new options, these infections will continue to increase.

What needs to be done?

To address the crisis, it is imperative that together, we continue to push the boundaries of science. As one of the few remaining large pharmaceutical companies working in all areas of infectious disease, our scientists are looking at drug development in new ways, including revisiting past approaches. Drug development is part of who we are. We are guided by a single mission – to help save and improve lives.