This article was originally published in The Australian.

The new coronavirus sweeping the world has given us a glimpse into the future, where an infection can create global fear and disruption. But there is another more deadly, more pervasive infectious threat already in our communities and it’s much harder to track.

While most people recover from COVID-19, more than 700,000 people die each year from diseases caused by bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics.

As the world scrambles to develop new tests and vaccines for the coronavirus threat, we are fast losing one of our most powerful weapons against deadly bacterial superbugs.

uperbugs carry genes that make them immune to modern medicine. They can spread these genes to other bacteria and be passed from person to person, through animals, food and our environment.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming more common in Australia and they don’t care if you are young or old, healthy or vulnerable; they can strike anyone, anywhere. As you can imagine, without effective antibiotics, our hospitals and healthcare systems would fail.

Without antibiotics, even something as simple as a urinary tract infection will be untreatable, putting thousands of people in hospital for days, taking them away from work and home life.

uperbugs carry genes that make them immune to modern medicine. They can spread these genes to other bacteria and be passed from person to person, through animals, food and our environment.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are becoming more common in Australia and they don’t care if you are young or old, healthy or vulnerable; they can strike anyone, anywhere. As you can imagine, without effective antibiotics, our hospitals and healthcare systems would fail.

Without antibiotics, even something as simple as a urinary tract infection will be untreatable, putting thousands of people in hospital for days, taking them away from work and home life.

Worryingly, we do not know the full impact and spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Australia and we have no time to lose in understanding where and how these superbugs are emerging and which pose the most danger.

Australia needs a national system for recording antibiotic-resistant infections and whether those infections have caused a death. We need to know where the superbug hotspots are and we need to work out the role of animals and the environment.

But we have a golden opportunity to develop a state-of-the-art system to monitor and manage antibiotic-resistant bacteria. It is called Outbreak, a world-first hi-tech warning system to help combat the growing threat from antibiotic-resistant bacteria in Australia. Outbreak is collating huge amounts of data and using artificial intelligence to analyse it, so that we can quickly predict and map antibiotic-resistant infections across the country.

The system will help us see where and who is at risk of antibiotic-resistant infections, saving lives and billions of dollars. Importantly, it will allow us to test different scenarios and work out the most effective way to tackle superbug outbreaks.

The first stage of Outbreak is well advanced, with a group of 14 leading university, government and industry partners coming together to create a multidisciplinary team of researchers, tech­nologists, economists, policy strategists and a wide range of other experts across the country to tackle drug-resistant infections.

Supported by a one-year grant from the federal government’s $5bn Medical Research Future Fund, the team has laid the groundwork for stage two of this unique project. Now, to bring Outbreak to life, we are seeking a longer-term grant from the medical research fund of $100m over five years. This bold investment would transform the sustainability of Australia’s health system.

“While Outbreak will not replace the need for new drugs, it will extend the life of our existing antibiotics and help protect us from superbugs while new treatments and approaches are developed.”

— Steven Djordjevic, Branwen Morgan

Outbreak is an ambitious project — involving 14 university, government and industry partners — and it will pay for itself many times over through savings to the health system, protecting business productivity and bolstering our export industries.

The challenges of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are complex but not impossible. Outbreak is our best and last hope of putting up a strong fight, preserving the medicines of today and tomorrow.

Steven Djordjevic is professor of infectious diseases at UTS. He and associate professor Branwen Morgan are co-founders of the Outbreak project.

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