Climate Change Is Unleashing a Tsunami of Infectious Diseases and We Have Fewer and Fewer Drugs That Can Treat Them

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Climate change is not only making the planet sick–it is creating a hotbed for infectious diseases and superbugs to thrive and putting the health and lives of millions around the world at risk. Critically, extreme temperatures and air pollution are exacerbating viral respiratory infections and mosquito-borne diseases, one of which is likely to seed the next epidemic or pandemic.

Given the link between climate and health, the pharmaceutical industry has a unique responsibility to act, not only to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions but also to combat the adverse health consequences of the climate emergency. However, most of the climate action we are seeing from the pharmaceutical industry focuses on environmental measures aimed at preventing climate change from worsening. Beyond preventing it from escalating, pharmaceutical companies also need to treat the existing effects of climate change on human health–especially the superbugs and infectious diseases that are already running rampant.

Currently, nearly two-thirds of pathogenic diseases that affect humans are being spurred by rising temperatures and climate hazards. Increased floods, cyclones, and droughts limit access to clean water, creating ideal conditions for diseases such as cholera to thrive. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 44 countries reported cholera cases, up 25% from 2021–and this trend has continued in 2023.

At the same time, a warmer world is creating a fertile environment for the rampant spread of drug resistance. This means treating infectious diseases with existing medicines is becoming harder–and the consequences are fatal. In 2019 alone, 1.27 million people died of drug-resistant infections.  

The anti-infectives crisis

Despite this lived reality, many pharmaceutical companies have abandoned the anti-infectives market. Moreover, the handful of remaining companies are not deeply invested in targeting and treating infectious diseases. Our 2022 Access to Medicine Index showed that only five of the 20 major pharmaceutical companies analyzed were engaging in research & development (R&D) for emerging infectious diseases other than COVID-19. If companies don’t do more to target high-priority pathogens, then we will be woefully unprepared for the next outbreak.

Beyond the need to protect society from the next epidemic or pandemic, people around the world already need access to anti-infectives to treat infectious diseases that are costing lives today. These medicines exist, yet many people, especially those living in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs), cannot access them, leading to preventable loss of life. For example, Tuberculosis (TB) is a preventable, treatable, and curable disease. Yet 1.3 million people died from TB in 2022, making it the second leading infectious killer after COVID-19. Moreover, only two in five people living with multidrug-resistant (MDR) TB were able to access treatment for it in 2022.

In a 2021 report, we showed that society is heavily reliant on biotech companies to bring lifesaving new antibiotics and antifungals to market. However, these smaller enterprises face an uphill battle to secure the funding and resources needed to bring even the most promising products to patients. We urgently need pharmaceutical companies that are active in this space to expand the accessibility and affordability of their existing products.

Our work at the foundation has shown that there are opportunities for pharmaceutical companies, including generic medicine manufacturers, to take action. We now need to see systemic change. With overall planetary health rising on the global agenda, donors and investors can support and encourage companies to recognize the duality of their role in tackling climate change, including the need to target infectious diseases.

Of course, the climate crisis has myriad impacts on health­–including the rise of non-communicable diseases, such as asthma and other respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution­–which will also require the involvement of various healthcare sectors and global health stakeholders. But we will not stand a chance against the threat posed by infectious diseases without more urgent action from pharmaceutical companies. We are coming dangerously close to a scenario where too few companies are engaged in this space–leaving the global population incredibly vulnerable.

Nearly three years ago, all of us were plunged into one of the darkest health emergencies the world had faced in a century. We cannot afford to be unprepared for the next one. Moreover, the superbugs that are already here also need to be treated.

There is no miracle cure for climate change, but pharmaceutical companies hold the key to combatting some of its deadliest symptoms. By making sure their climate action goes beyond curbing carbon emissions and includes health commitments, pharmaceutical companies can protect the planet as well as the lives of the people who inhabit it.

They are the one industry the world is relying on to get this right.

Jayasree K. Iyer is the CEO of the Access to Medicine Foundation . 

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The opinions expressed in commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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