Super bugs

Gambling with profits

The pharmaceutical industry’s demands: The international community should pay for the development of new, highly efficient antibiotics. It is true: These drugs are not profitable and the demand is justified.

von Hristio Boytchev

Antibiotic resistance has entered on the global stage. Barely an international political summit passes without the problem being mentioned. The refrain: We need more, we need new antibiotics. 

Pharma has now put the ball back in the politicians’ court. Almost 100 members of the pharmaceutical and medical device industries, including heavyweights such as Pfizer, Merck and Bayer, published a resolution that coincided with the World Economic Summit in Davos. 

The central statement of the resolution: Yes, we can develop new antibiotics, but you politicians have to pay the bill. 

The paper clearly states the pharmaceutical industry’s concerns: Antibiotics are too cheap. Research efforts are difficult, and therefore costly. Normal methods of development have largely failed. “We call on governments to commit to allocating the funds needed to create a sustainable and predictable market“, wrote the industry representatives. Consumption of antibiotics and their remuneration should be delinked.  One possible solution: Instead of paying for antibiotics per dose, there should be a flat rate. „Presently, the situation is like paying firemen per fire“, says John Rex, Vice President of Global Medicines Development at the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca. That is not sustainable, he says. 

Pharma has a bad reputation. Among politicians and citizens, the industry is notorious for being greedy. But in this case, the demand for more money is justified. It makes sense to find alternative ways to finance new drugs. When politicians insist that new drugs are needed, but the drugs don’t turn a profit — as new antibiotics are used very sparingly — then they should provide the necessary cash.

That is one side of the coin. 

The other side: How realistic are the horrific scenarios painted by politicians and scientists? How justified is the talk about a supposed post-antibiotic era, in which antibiotics no longer work, and every cut or bladder infection can turn deadly? When we look at the evidence, these scenarios are probably exaggerated. The data to support these claims are weak. Maybe we don’t need new miracle drugs in the near future. What we do need, however, is better research into antibiotic resistance, clearheadedness and responsible use of the antibiotics we have today — on the farms, in doctors’ offices and in hospitals.