AstraZeneca joins with pharmaceutical bodies to urge new antibiotics funding

Meningitis bacteria Image copyright SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image caption Pharmaceutical firms have warned about bacteria becoming resistant to antibiotics

UK pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and industry bodies have warned of a "terrible human cost" unless new ways of funding antibiotics are found.

They said the government should take urgent action to help UK companies working in this area.

In an open letter, they pointed to warnings that drug-resistant bacteria could kill 10 million people a year globally by 2050.

To combat this, a new economic model for antibiotic research is needed.

Without new antibiotics, "everything from routine surgical procedures, to cancer chemotherapy, organ transplantation and even childbirth will become increasingly dangerous", according to the letter published in the Financial Times.

"Beyond the terrible human cost, if we fail to act now, antimicrobial resistance is also expected to cost the world economy $100tn a year by 2050," the letter added.

Many large companies have previously pulled out of antibiotic research because developing new drugs had proved very difficult.

It has been nearly 30 years since the last new class of antibiotics was released, although there have been signs of a revival, with AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline and US drugmaker Merck working on new products.

'Return on investment'

BioIndustry Association chief executive Steve Bates, who also signed the letter, said companies' investment needed to be rewarded, but without encouraging the overuse of antibiotics.

He said the government could set up an insurance-style scheme in which it paid a fixed fee for antibiotics, so that manufacturers did not only focus on research into drugs that maximised sales.

"In the past, this was an area where there was the possibility for global companies to make a significant return on investment," Mr Bates told the BBC.

"That's changed and now companies look at different areas. We need to rebalance this so they can come back into this space once again."

The government has commissioned Treasury economist Jim O'Neill to deliver a report in spring 2016.

In preliminary findings in May, Lord O'Neill called for a $2bn global antibiotic research fund and said the government should give upfront payments for successful new antibiotics.

The letter was also signed by John Rex, a senior AstraZeneca executive; Prof Colin Garner, chief executive of Antibiotic Research UK; Prof Jayne Lawrence, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society; Prof Luigi Martini, of King's College London; and Jeremy Lefroy MP.

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