Big Pharma Calls for New Incentives to Fight “Superbugs”

January 21, 2016

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA: Hospital scientist Joanne Thambyah (L) inspects an unidentified culture (C) in the Microbiology Department of Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital, 07 June 2004. A young man who died in the intensive care unit of the Royal Brisbane Hospital, in the northern state of Brisbane last year, has been identified as the first victim of a deadly new antibiotic-resistant superbug which has emerged in Australia and is related to the golden staphylococcus virus. AFP PHOTO/Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images) (GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

A coalition of more than 80 pharmaceutical, diagnostics and biotechnology companies from around the world are calling on governments to help create a new economic framework to fight the rapidly accelerating threat posed by drug-resistant “superbugs.”

In a declaration released Thursday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the companies warned that the spread of germs that can no longer be treated with common antibiotics has been “dramatic,” and that combating this growth should be a “top priority.” Among the companies signed onto the declaration are industry giants like AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.

The declaration follows similar warnings from public health officials who say that without new antibiotics, tens of millions could be dead within decades. In the United States alone, at least 2 million people are infected by drug-resistant bacteria every year, and 23,000 die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But developing new drugs to meet the threat has been difficult. It can cost upwards of $1 billion to bring a new drug to market, and because antibiotics don’t command the same high prices as other medications, many companies have ruled such research cost-prohibitive. Cancer drugs, for example, can be priced at more than $100,000, but given the widespread use of antibiotics, companies can only charge a fraction of that amount for them.

This has driven many drug makers out of the antibiotics business. One of the last companies to stay was Pfizer, but in 2011 the company closed its main antibiotic research facility in Connecticut. Dr. Charles Knirsch, Pfizer’s vice president of clinical research, explained the challenge facing companies in the 2013 documentary Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria, telling FRONTLINE:

These are not ruthless decisions … We want to stay in the business of providing new therapeutics for the future. Our investors require that of us. I think society wants Pfizer to be doing what we do in 20 years. We make portfolio management decisions.

Now, companies like Pfizer are hoping to avoid having to make such tradeoffs altogether.

“We support the increasing recognition that the value assigned to antibiotics and diagnostics often does not reflect the benefits they bring to society, nor the investment required for their creation,” write the 85 companies and nine industry associations that signed the declaration.

That will take “transformational commercial models,” according to the companies that signed the document. They outlined one proposal in which governments or an international organization would pay a lump sum upfront for newly created medications in order to ease the pressure to focus on revenues and sales volume.

The coalition also hopes to increase incentives for research and development, and discourage the overuse of existing drugs in both humans and animals — that’s because the more often antibiotics are used, the more easily dangerous pathogens can develop resistance to them.

The declaration follows a March 2015 proposal from the White House that made similar calls for the development of new treatments. As that report warned, “the emergence of drug-resistance in bacteria is reversing miracles of the past 80 years, with drug choices for the treatment of many bacterial infections becoming increasingly limited, expensive, and, in some cases, nonexistent.”

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