Resistance-minimising strategies for introducing a novel antibiotic for gonorrhoea treatment: a mathematical modelling study

Lancet Microbe. 2023 Aug 21;S2666-5247(23)00145-3. doi: 10.1016/S2666-5247(23)00145-3. Online ahead of print.


Background: Gonorrhoea is a highly prevalent sexually transmitted infection and an urgent public health concern because of increasing antibiotic resistance in Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Only ceftriaxone remains as the recommended treatment in the USA. With the prospect of new anti-gonococcal antibiotics being approved, we aimed to evaluate how to deploy a new drug to maximise its clinically useful lifespan.

Methods: We used a compartmental model of gonorrhoea transmission in a US population of men who have sex with men (MSM) to compare strategies for introducing a new antibiotic for gonorrhoea treatment. The MSM population was stratified into three sexual activity groups (low, intermediate, and high) characterised by annual rates of partner change. The four introduction strategies tested were: (1) random 50-50 allocation, where each treatment-seeking infected individual had a 50% probability of receiving either drug A (current drug; a ceftriaxone-like antibiotic) or drug B (a new antibiotic), effective at time 0; (2) combination therapy of both the current drug and the new antibiotic; (3) reserve strategy, by which the new antibiotic was held in reserve until the current therapy reached a 5% threshold prevalence of resistance; and (4) gradual switch, or the gradual introduction of the new drug until random 50-50 allocation was reached. The primary outcome of interest was the time until 5% prevalence of resistance to each of the drugs (the new drug and the current ceftriaxone-like antibiotic); sensitivity of the primary outcome to the properties of the new antibiotic, specifically the probability of resistance emergence after treatment and the fitness costs of resistance, was explored. Secondary outcomes included the time to a 1% resistance threshold for each drug, as well as population-level prevalence, mean and range annual incidence, and the cumulative number of incident gonococcal infections.

Findings: Under baseline model conditions, a 5% prevalence of resistance to each of drugs A and B was reached within 13·9 years with the reserve strategy, 18·2 years with the gradual switch strategy, 19·2 years with the random 50-50 allocation strategy, and 19·9 years with the combination therapy strategy. The reserve strategy was consistently inferior for mitigating antibiotic resistance under the parameter space explored and was increasingly outperformed by the other strategies as the probability of de novo resistance emergence decreased and as the fitness costs associated with resistance increased. Combination therapy tended to prolong the development of antibiotic resistance and minimise the number of annual gonococcal infections (under baseline model conditions, mean number of incident infections per year 178 641 [range 177 998-181 731] with combination therapy, 180 084 [178 011-184 405] with the reserve strategy).

Interpretation: Our study argues for rapid introduction of new anti-gonococcal antibiotics, recognising that the feasibility of each strategy must incorporate cost, safety, and other practical concerns. The analyses should be revisited once robust estimates of key parameters-ie, the likelihood of emergence of resistance and fitness costs of resistance for the new antibiotic-are available.

Funding: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.