How to fix a broken market in antibiotics

How to fix a broken market in antibiotics
Test tubes filled with samples of bacteria to be tested are seen at the Health Protection Agency in north London in this March 9, 2011 file photo.

The drugs don't work - and neither does the market, when it comes to antibiotics.

When sophisticated bugs that medicines used to kill within days start to fight back and win, all of healthcare, and the people it keeps alive, is in trouble.

Take gonorrhoea, a sexually transmitted disease contracted by more than 100 million people a year: it used to be easily treatable but has now developed superbug strains that are drug-resistant and are spreading around the planet.

Tuberculosis is a similar tale. Totally resistant forms of the lung infection emerged in India just a few years ago and have now been detected worldwide. Hospital patients in Africa with untreatable TB are often simply sent home to die.

It's a glimpse of what Britain's chief medical officer Sally Davies calls the "apocalyptic scenario" of a post-antibiotic era, which the World Health Organisation says will be upon us this century unless something drastic is done.

Waking up to the threat, governments and health officials are getting serious about trying to neutralize it. It may seem like a question of science, microbes and drugs - but in truth it is a global issue of economics and national security.

Fixing the problem is daunting but past successes in rolling out drugs for HIV, vaccinating millions of children in the developing world and recalibrating rewards for medicines to treat rare genetic diseases suggest it is doable.

The debate moved to centre stage last week when British Prime Minister David Cameron launched a global review of the crisis, securing specific support from US President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

That builds on a resolution passed at the World Health Assembly in Geneva in May recognising the pressing need for the world to act in the fight to combat increasing resistance.

"We cannot contemplate failure," Davies told Reuters in an interview in her office in London's Whitehall. "We have to find something that works for the world."

What this demands, according to academic and industry experts, is a new business model that rewards drug firms for developing new antibiotics even if they are rarely used.

It is no accident that Cameron chose a big-hitting economic brain - former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O'Neill - to head the review.

"This is...not a science issue. This is an issue of markets and economics," said Davies. "A scientist would just get bogged down and not get it."

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