The crisis caused by resistance to antibiotics is a threat on a par with terrorism and global warming, according to England's chief medical officer Dame Sally Davies.

Speaking at the BioInfect 2013 conference, held at AstraZeneca's Alderley Park in Cheshire, Dame Sally noted that "the golden age" of effective antibiotics has come to an end as no new class of drugs has been developed since 1987. In the early part of the 20th century, infections caused some 43% of deaths, which due to effective drugs has fallen to around 7% in the developed world. However, if action is not taken, "we will go back to a pre-antibiotic era," she said.

Dame Sally called for an international framework to deal with the problem as "we can't play 'Fortress Britain' or 'Fortress Europe'," saying agreements are needed to end over-the-counter sales and to ban non-therapeutic use in animals. She also spoke of the importance in helping the developed world balance access to essential antibiotics with the  need to curb resistance.

She added that the UK government is supportive of attempts to put the issue higher up the agenda but concluded by saying that "if we pussyfoot and fart around, we will die".

Speaking to PharmaTimes at the conference, which was hosted by Bionow, AstraZeneca's head of infection, John Rex, said he was particularly pleased with initiatives from the European Medicines Agency and the US Food and Drug Administration in improving the regulatory pathway for new antibiotics. The future for development lies in smaller datasets including preclinical packages and smaller trials which would act as an incentive for drug makers which have exited the area in recent years.

Putting together huge amounts of clinical data ahead of registering drugs on the back of large trials per indication is a model that does not work, he said, as if you have large numbers of patients already infected, "you are too late".

Neil Murray, chief executive of Redx Pharma, a fast-growing biotech that is focusing on new antibiotics, noted that around 70% of known bacteria have developed resistance to one or more drugs. In Europe, some 25,000 people die each year as a result of drug resistance and he told PharmaTimes that "it is a complex, multi-layered problem that requires global leadership".