A new report commissioned by the British government has called for action to combat antimicrobial resistance. The authors suggested a "pay or play" system for pharmaceutical companies to incentivize research.
Pharmaceutical companies researching ways to combat bacteria that have developed an immunity to antibiotics should receive state support, while those failing to do so should pay levies, according to the authors of the report released on Thursday.
"It needs to be seen as the economic and security threat that it is, and be at the forefront of the minds of heads of state," researchers of the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) said on Thursday. Antimicrobial resistance is immunity to antibiotics designed to kill given bacteria.
Jim O'Neill, the former Goldman Sachs chief economist who led the report, said that around 1 million people had died of antimicrobial resistant illnesses since the review started in mid-2014. Excessive antibiotic use is a primary factor leading to the development of such so-called "superbugs."
According to O'Neill, AMR could kill an extra 10 million people a year and cost up to $100 trillion by 2050 unless it is brought under control. "If we don't do something, we're heading towards a world where there will be no antibiotics available to people who need them," O'Neill told reporters in London.
The World Health Organization (WHO) had also warned before that antimicrobial resistance could result in "a return to the pre-antibiotic era," when millions of people died before drugs to treat them were discovered.
The paper laid out steps to tackle the impending crisis, suggesting public awareness campaigns to stop the overuse of antibiotics. Researchers said farmers could cut the vast quantities of medicines given to farm animals and doctors could improve diagnoses to stop unnecessary prescriptions.
O'Neill also said pharmaceutical companies that decide not to invest in research and development should be subject to a surcharge, while those researching the issue should receive financial support. Calling the system "pay or play," O'Neill mooted rewards in excess of $1 billion for any successful new antimicrobial medicine brought to the market.
A stitch in time
The cost of the measures suggested by the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance was estimated to be around 35.6 billion euros ($40 billion) over 10 years, much less than if the problem were not addressed in time. "They can either do so proactively by taking action now and pay less for better outcomes or remain unprepared and end up spending much more taxpayer money on far worse outcomes further down the line," the report said.
Very few new antibiotics have been developed in the last decades as pharmaceutical companies began focusing on more profitable disease areas. However, the researchers said that an extra tax on drug firms to fund antibiotic research would "significantly undermine current goodwill, cooperation, and the large voluntary investment and initiatives that are already underway."
"There is no excuse for inaction given what we know about the impact of rising drug resistance," the paper stressed.
mg/msh (AFP, Reuters)