As part of a review of antibiotic resistance being prepared for the UK government, former Goldman Sachs economist Jim O’Neill recently suggested the need for a multibillion-dollar investment in the international pharmaceuticals industry in order to stimulate research into developing the next generation of antimicrobial treatments.
Mr. O’Neill’s call for such funding comes at a time of an increasing threat of “suberbugs,” or microbes that are resistant to the most widely available antibiotic medications. According to his analysis, antimicrobial resistance could result in the otherwise preventable deaths of approximately 300 million people over the next 35 years. In economic terms, that translates to between $60 trillion and $100 trillion in lost output by 2050.
In order to head off this humanitarian and economic catastrophe, Mr. O’Neill has estimated that up to $37 billion—mostly expected to come from public coffers—will be needed to encourage the pharmaceutical industry to pursue lines of research into producing new antibiotics. The goal of this massive financing initiative is to boost the diversity of antimicrobial treatments available by spurring the creation of 15 new treatments per decade.
Such an incentive is necessary because drug makers have generally considered antibiotics to be a relatively risky investment of research dollars. This is not without reason: any novel medication produced would rarely be administered as long as existing antibiotics remain plentiful and effective. Obviously, a rarely used medication is not a profitable medication.
Recently, however, microbial resistance to established treatments has been on the rise, and current antibiotics are losing their effectiveness. Moreover, the pipeline of new medications has almost run dry, meaning that there are fewer options available for treating resistant strains of microbes. A major objective of research into antibiotics, then, is to produce treatments now, so that they are ready to use in the future. Unfortunately, this conflicts with the drug makers’ need to maintain short-term profitability.
In order to get around this, Mr. O’Neill’s proposal included paying a lump sum to pharmaceutical companies that currently have high-priority research in the works. This sort of payoff, he explained, is meant to disconnect profitability from sales, thereby motivating drug firms to release these drugs regardless of current demand.
Representatives from the international pharmaceuticals industry have been generally supportive of Mr. O’Neill’s findings. The question is whether the global political will can be found to implement such an ambitious funding plan to find new treatments for drug-resistance microbes.