This is an opinion that first appeared in the The Hill Times

Canada could transform from global laggard to a global leader in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

Canada’s Auditor-General released a report on October 19th concluding that the federal government has not done enough to protect Canadians from the spread of antimicrobial resistant pathogens, commonly known as “superbugs.” This is roughly the same conclusion the Auditor-General reached nearly a decade ago, and few experts will be surprised at the findings of the report despite the urgency of the growing threat.

While Karen Hogan notes that some progress has been made, Canada remains unprepared to fight this global health threat. “History shows – most recently with the COVID-19 pandemic that when it comes to health care, the cost of not being prepared is measured in lives lost,” Hogan writes.

The report also makes a number of recommendations to set us on the right path to lasting solutions. Among these is a continued call for leadership from federal agencies to coordinate multi-stakeholder collaborations with clear goals, timelines and accountability. Together, we can overcome the threat of superbugs, but we need to act now under strong federal leadership if we hope to turn the tide and safeguard public health for generations to come.

Antimicrobial resistance has become a global pandemic that is associated with five million deaths a year. In Canada, roughly a quarter of bacterial infections resist the first attempt at treatment. These infections cost the Canadian health care system and economy more than $3-billion annually. Without action, the situation will go from bad to worse, threatening to return us to a world in which seemingly trivial infections can lead to death.

The Auditor-General’s prescription for getting a handle on antimicrobial resistance includes improved data collection, development of national antimicrobial prescribing guidelines, and a more determined effort to bring new antibiotics to Canada. It also urges federal agencies to fund, implement and monitor the Pan-Canadian Action Plan on Antimicrobial Resistance. This plan, which was released in June of 2023, is a five-year blueprint to co-ordinate ten specific actions, ranging from basic research to infection prevention.

The national action plan acknowledges that contributions from many partners across several sectors – including governments, academia, clinicians and the private sector – will be required to achieve these goals.

The good news is that Canadian universities, hospitals and companies are up to the challenge.

Recently, we partnered with Canadian researchers and the World Health Organization to develop and distribute the WHO AWaRe Antibiotic Book – a new gold standard resource that helps healthcare providers around the world to select the best treatment for their patients, while minimizing the spread of resistance.

We encourage the Government of Canada to adopt the WHO AWaRe system nationally and to work with clinical experts to adapt the guidance to suit Canada’s specific needs. This would fulfill one of the Auditor-General’s recommendations, and represent a significant step toward putting elements of the national action plan into action

Canada has world-class expertise in the fields of antimicrobial discovery, clinical guideline development and digital health technology. Given leadership and funding from the federal government, these skills could be leveraged to provide Canada and the world with new treatment options and equip health care providers with the knowledge they need to prevent the spread of resistance. By working together, Canada could transform from global laggard to a global leader in the fight against antimicrobial resistance.

We know it can be done. We saw a massive, concerted, multibillion-dollar effort against COVID-19. We need the same kind of co-ordinated action against antimicrobial resistance that will take us beyond talk and good intentions. We can’t afford another decade of inertia. With millions of lives and billions of dollars on the line worldwide, the stakes are too high for that.

Canadian Action on AMR

Firstline: Improving global health with local knowledge.