In 1928, as Alexander Fleming was sorting through a pile of petri dishes that he’d been cultivating bacteria in, he noticed something unusual. Mold growing in one of the dishes had created a bacteria-free circle around itself. After taking samples of the mold he found it belonged to the penicillium family. Fleming had accidentally stumbled across penicillin, the first antibiotic.
Although Fleming published a paper on the new discovery, it was largely ignored until the 1940s and the onset of World War II. With positive tests in mice and humans showing the true power of penicillin, the US government actively pushed industry into the mass production of the drug. By the end of the war, U.S. companies were making more than 650 billion units a month, which saved tens of thousands of lives then and millions since.
Today marks 61 years since the death of Fleming, and his discovery is still hailed as one of the greatest in medical history. However, we are now facing the prospect of this progress being undone, with the emerging crisis of new strains of antimicrobial resistant bacteria effectively nullifying existing antibiotics. We are on the road back to the days of people dying from common infections and injuries.
According to a study conducted in the UK, following direct intervention by the Prime Minister David Cameron, if we fail to find effective antibiotics and manufacture them at the scale needed, ten million people a year across the world will die by 2050. This would make antimicrobial resistance the world’s single biggest killer. The loss to global GDP will be $100 trillion (more than the whole global economy put together).