Pharmaceuticals accused of 'spewing out nonsense' on antibiotic threat

28 Mar 2019

Pharmaceuticals accused of 'spewing out nonsense' on antibiotic threat

Part of the pharmaceutical industry should be nationalised to force state-run utility companies to produce new antibiotics, argues Lord Jim O'Neill.

The SfAM honorary fellow was sharing his ideas at a London press briefing on “fixing the broken antibiotics market”. He made an analogy with the way banks were taken over by the government following the 2008 financial crash. Like the financial sector, of which O'Neill is very familiar, it seems pharma companies can’t be relied upon for self-regulation or affirmative action.

“If they produced one-tenth of the commitment in their words, we would be getting somewhere,” he said.

Arms race against bacteria

O’Neill’s 18-month-long review, commissioned by former British prime minister David Cameron and concluded in 2016, found that the threat of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) could kill an extra 10 million people a year by 2050 and cost up to $100 trillion if no action is taken to slow or halt it.

Following his Review, O'Neill co-authored ‘Superbugs an Arms Race against Bacteria‘ with William Hall, and Anthony McDonnell. The book is a forensic economic and philosophical manifesto for fixing the urgent issues around AMR. 

Pulling no punches, and weary of hollow words, O’Neill accused pharma companies of “spewing out nonsense about their commitment to producing antibiotics”.

Tim Jinks, head of Wellcome’s drug-resistant infections programme agreed:

“Science can’t solve this problem on its own. We need to overhaul the economics to fix the broken antibiotic market.”

“Small biotech companies are becoming the innovation engine for antibiotics,” said Mr Jinks. While this is encouraging, he added that they need the resources of big pharma companies to single out promising new drugs and advance them through clinical trials into the market.

Lord Jim O'Neill
Lord Jim O'Neill
Pipe dreams

In 1980, 25 pharmaceutical companies had active antibiotic discovery programmes. The numbers have since dwindled to just three: Pfizer, MSD (Merck Sharp & Dohme) and GSK (GlaxoSmithKline).

All use of antibiotics advance the development and spread of multi-drug-resistant infections that can evade the antimicrobial drugs designed to destroy them.

The global industry body, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations (IFPMA) were less enthusiastic about O’Neill’s suggestions. The IFPMA described some of his ideas as “pipe dreams” and claimed the concept of creating a public utility had “little to commend it.”

“Rather than wasting time running after new pipe dreams, we call for a big push to sort out the incentives that have broad consensus - fast - before we give up,” it said in a statement to Reuters.

Responses to O’Neill’s Review, from experts in the field can be found in the special December edition of Microbiologist