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Blog #11 - No time for high politics

By NBailly 15:42, May 31 2014 (CDT)

International collaborations against antibiotic resistances are all well and good, but the UN Climate Change conference of all collaborations shows why coordination at the government level is the wrong approach, says Lars Fischer, editorial journalist at "Spektrum Der Wissenschaft". Not even a century ago, the discovery of antibiotics caused a decisive turn for the better in the millennia-long battle against infectious diseases. But while many already saw pathogenic agents eradicated and a golden age of medicine seemed within reach, we have now however reached an abyss: a dramatic relapse into a world looms ahead, where microorganisms are again rulers over life and death.

The threat emanating from the increasing antibiotic resistances is existential—for every one of us, as well as the countries and society itself. That the world community unites in a supranational board in order to face the latter, suggests itself. However, as alluring as the vision of an intergovernmental panel on antimicrobial resistance may be, as evoked by Mark Woolhouse and Jeremy Farrar (authors of the Nature article "Policy: An intergovernmental panel on antimicrobial resistance", published May 2014), this thought is gravely mistaken.

Aachen HuClimateUN.jpg
UN Climate Change Conference
Summits like the UN Climate Change Conference are the wrong approach to problems such as antibiotic resistances, says Lars Fischer. Picture from the Intern Blog of American University.

Indeed, it is right that there are parallels between climate change and antibiotic resistances, however, there are also extensive—essential—differences. Firstly, the time span: Glaciers melt and climate zones shift over centuries, the ocean level rises over millennia. That timeframe is very suited for the international wrestling with measures and agreements, one that often reminds outsiders of a geological process. The first bacterial resistances against a new antibiotic currently appear within a few years.

And the case of climate change is still quite simple because there is an actual scientific consensus that can be recommended to politics. Regarding antibiotic resistances, it is way more complicated. Data is lacking everywhere. The only thing that a panel like that could agree on at this moment would be a substantial need for research.

This would be a fatal signal for practice: First a big multinational panel is founded that is supposed to recommend the ultimate measures against antibiotic resistances, and then the organisation can hardly say more than "the facts are yet to be established". There is a great danger that most stakeholders would first wait until the panel sees through its decision. And subsequently, one would still have to consolidate these recommendations at the governmental level—recommendations whose data basis is necessarily thin and incomplete. It would be easy for the profiteers of the status quo to thwart such an endeavour—just like it is happening with climate change.

Therefore, the combatants of resistances should rather avoid big politics and use the already-established networks to coordinate themselves internationally. If in doubt, influence on politics and corporations should be looked for on a local level. There are—as Woolhouse and Farrar wrote themselves—a multitude of examples for regional organisations and initiatives. Of course, such sectioned measurement structures have their disadvantages, but they are by far implemented more quickly. And the time factor is crucial: a race with bacteria has to be approached differently from one with glaciers.

A translation of Keine Zeit für hohe Politik published in "Spektrum der Wissenschaft" on May 30th, 2014.