(Updates with $20 million diagnostic prize, industry context, report details)
By P.J. Huffstutter
Sept 18 (Reuters) - The U.S. government will set up a task force and presidential advisory council to tackle the growing threat of antibiotic resistance, setting a Feb. 15 deadline for it to outline specific steps, White House advisers said on Thursday.
The secretaries of Defense, Agriculture and Health and Human Services will set up the task force to advise on steps to ensure the remaining medically important antibiotics available to treat humans stay effective and look at their use in animal feed.
Antibiotic resistance in bacteria has led to "super bugs" linked to 23,000 deaths and 2 million illnesses every year in the United States, and up to $20 billion in direct health-care costs.
The task force was part of measures in a 78-page report by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) also released on Thursday.
The PCAST report called for the federal government to double its current spending to $900 million to track and research antibiotic resistance; and invest another $800 million annually to help boost commercial development of new antibiotics.
Other suggestions from PCAST included finding alternatives to human-relevant antibiotics for use by livestock producers; greater surveillance of antibiotic use in agriculture; and offering incentives to encourage development of antibiotics.
The White House also announced Thursday a $20 million prize to help develop rapid, point-of-care diagnostic tests to identify highly resistant bacterial infections.
Agriculture industry groups said some of PCAST's proposed measures -- such as phasing out the use of use of medically-important antibiotics to promote growth in livestock -- are already underway.
In a statement, National Pork Producers Council president Howard Hill said farmers "work hand-in-hand with veterinarians to minimize the need for and use of antibiotics, particularly antibiotics important in human medicine."
Critics said they had hoped for more aggressive steps to curtail antibiotic use, particularly in agriculture.
"Much more follow through is needed," said Mae Wu, health attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), in a statement. The NRDC called for "steps to curb the overuse of antibiotics in animals, which consume about 80 percent of the antibiotics sold in the United States."
The White House's advisers had worked for months on the report, which was published days after two U.S. lawmakers called for action to rein in antibiotic use in livestock, in response to a Reuters investigation showing how top U.S. poultry companies have been administering drugs to their flocks.
Representative Louise Slaughter, a Democrat of New York who introduced legislation last year that would require disclosure of data on antibiotic use, said "substantial changes in the use of antibiotics in agricultural settings is necessary in order to preserve this precious resource for human medicine."
Slaughter earlier this week urged lawmakers to address the issue at a House subcommittee hearing on antibiotic resistance scheduled for Friday.
"We are on the very real, very frightening precipice of a post-antibiotic era with mortality rates for infections increasing," said Dr. Barbara Murray, president of the Infectious Diseases Society of America, in written testimony ahead of the hearing. (Additional reporting by Sharon Begley in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and Andrew Hay)