Rolex Young Laureate 2014


Waging war on superbugs

Hosam Zowawi Hosam Zowawi

Antibiotic resistance is a global threat to human health. Hosam Zowawi is fighting back with science and a communications plan for the Gulf states.

Hosam Zowawi is face-to-face with a serial killer: in his laboratory in Brisbane, Australia, he is studying one of the most lethal microbes known to science, a strain of a typical hospital pathogen that is now virtually incurable. For the young Saudi Arabian scientist, the multi-drug resistant bacteria are the front line in a personal battle against one of the greatest threats to human health of the 21st century.

As in other nations around the world, in the countries of the Arabian Gulf Cooperation Council – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain – resistant superbugs are multiplying due to over-prescription of antibiotics, the casual availability of antibiotics over the pharmacy counter, gaps in hand-hygiene compliance in hospitals, a burgeoning travel industry and low public understanding of the risks.

Zowawi aims to develop, perfect and commercialize the world’s fastest, broadest tests for antibiotic resistance, and to educate the public and health-care profession about the risks posed by resistance – and how to prevent it.

“A post-antibiotic era – in which common infections and minor injuries can kill – far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is instead a very real possibility for the 21st century.”

World Health Organization, April 2014

Antibiotic discovery and microbial resistance

A race against time

Type of antibiotic

  • 1928Penicillin

    In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a British bacteriologist, discovered one of the first antibiotics, a serendipity that changed medical practice forever. He had been growing Staphylococcus aureus in a dish in his laboratory. These bacteria cause a range of infections, from minor skin irritations to fatal bloodstream infections and pneumonia. Fleming found that a mould, from the genus Penicillium, killed the bacteria. From this discovery came penicillin. Although it was not produced on an industrial scale until the 1940s, it was quickly prescribed worldwide to fight a variety of bacterial infections.

  • 1948Cephalosporins

    The cephalosporins, also derived from a mould, were the second major class of antibiotics to be discovered and developed, between 1945 and 1948. Several types of cephalosporins, sometimes known as “generations” to describe their antibacterial activity, have been developed. Cephalosporins are used to treat serious infections such as meningitis and sepsis.

  • 1975Carbapenems

    Carbapenems, which were developed as resistance to penicillin began to emerge, are often referred to as the antibiotics of last resort. They are potent drugs used in complicated, life-threatening infections usually acquired in hospitals or nursing homes, and often associated with devices such as ventilators and intravenous catheters. Resistance to the carbapenems has become a huge threat to global health.

  • 1980Fluoroquinolones

    The fluoroquinolones are synthetic drugs that have a broad spectrum of antibacterial activity. They are among the most widely used antibiotics in the world, in humans as well as in animals, for both therapeutic and nontherapeutic purposes. The misuse of this class of antibiotics has caused rapid, widespread resistance.

  • Very few new antibiotics are in advanced development

    The main reason is economic: antibiotics are typically taken for only a few days, not for a lifetime, as are more lucrative drugs for chronic conditions like hypertension. The various drug regulatory systems and rules can be impediments. And it can take years to bring a new antibiotic to market, with resistance then emerging in less time than it took to develop it. These are powerful disincentives in the competitive pharmaceutical industry. But the threat posed by antibiotic resistance is even more powerful, as minor infections and injuries, as well as common medical and surgical procedures, can kill, just as they did before the discovery of penicillin.

Over the last 30 years, no major new types of antibiotics have been developed

  • 1928
  • 1948
  • 1975
  • 1980
  • Discovery Void

Source: World Health Organization

A global scourge

Treatment failure

now reported for common infections in many countries

Gonorrhoea may become untreatable in

36 countries

Antibiotic resistance

is reaching an “alarming level” around the world, says the World Health Organization


die per year in Europe and North America from drug-resistant infections

Photograph: CDC

A global scourge

No new antibiotics

have been released since the 1980s


cases a year of drug-resistant tuberculosis now reported worldwide

Arabian Gulf states, along with other countries, face rising risks from superbugs due to misuse of antibiotics, growth in travel and

low public awareness

Antibiotic resistance “threatens the achievements of modern medicine”


Antibiotic-resistance awareness campaigns

are almost non-existent in the Gulf region

Photograph: CDC

Watch the short film

2014 Rolex Young Laureate Hosam Zowawi describes his project to combat antibiotic resistance and prevent the loss of one of the pillars of modern medicine.

A matter of urgency

Each day, all over the world, doctors are making life-and-death choices about which antibiotic to use to save a patient – often without knowing for sure.

Hosam Zowawi plans to beat this deadly roulette with two brilliant new diagnostic tests for antibiotic resistance in infectious bacteria. His Rapid Superbug test interrogates the microbes themselves to see if they carry the genes that make them resistant. It will help doctors pinpoint the right treatment – and so extend the life of the world’s ‘last resort’ antibiotics.

Fast and accurate, the test covers more types of deadly infection than anything on the world market. It gives doctors a clear answer in three to four hours – instead of days. After validation in Australia, Zowawi will run field trials of the Rapid Superbug test in the Gulf states. If successful these could lead to commercial testing services for hospitals, clinics and doctors across the globe. Zowawi’s second test identifies which antibiotics are being destroyed or degraded by resistant microbes – and the guilty bugs.

These tests will enable doctors, hospital managers and health-care planners to study how resistant infections spread, and target hotspots for priority counter-action.

The third strand of Zowawi’s project is to recruit the general public and entire health-care profession as allies in the global war on antibiotic resistance. Recognizing that lack of awareness and understanding leads to misuse of the drugs by both consumers and health-care practitioners, he is planning an ambitious public awareness and education campaign in the Gulf states.

Using social media – a driver of social progress in the region – as well as TV, radio and the press, he seeks to alert consumers to the life-threatening risks posed by misuse of antibiotics.

My dream is to save lives

“Not only the lives of people in hospitals all over the Gulf and the world today – but also the lives of people who will rely on antibiotics far into the future. This fills me with a sense of urgency, a deep feeling of responsibility,” says Zowawi. “But also with a sense of certainty, that if we put our heads together, we can forestall the loss of one of medicine’s most essential life-savers.”

Face-to-face with a deadly microbe

In a laboratory in Brisbane, Australia, Hosam Zowawi studies a strain of a typical hospital pathogen that is now virtually incurable.

Hosam Zowawi

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

In his 1945 Nobel Prize speech, Sir Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, warned that microbes could easily become resistant to the drug. (Fleming won the prize alongside Ernst Chain and Sir Howard Florey.)

Hosam Zowawi

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Superbugs that are resistant to all antibiotics have the potential to cast mankind back to an era when people died from simple infections. Hosam Zowawi is fighting back with science.

Hosam Zowawi

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Hosam Zowawi examines the tell-tale red stain used to illuminate the presence of deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which are increasingly present in all countries.

Hosam Zowawi

Rolex Young Laureate 2014

Washing hands correctly is the best way to ward off illness, Hosam Zowawi explains as part of his campaign to teach people how to combat antimicrobial resistance.

Anyone can change everything

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providing support for projects that tackle major challenges.

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Follow Hosam Zowawi as he delivers groundbreaking rapid diagnostic tests and a major awareness campaign in the battle against superbugs. Join other people, all over the world, who are helping Zowawi to combat the misuse of antibiotics.