NDR investigation Pharmaceutical companies pulling out of antibiotic research
Stand: 18.09.2019 12:02 Uhr
Despite the fact that the spread of resistant bacteria is seen as one of the biggest global threats, pharmaceutical companies are pulling out of research into new antibiotics. NDR's investigations expose this situation.
Christian Baars, Oda Lambrecht (NDR).
The largest health group in the world, Johnson & Johnson, has confirmed to NDR that they are currently "no longer developing new antibiotics." Industry giants Novartis and Sanofi cut off their antibiotics research in 2018; AstraZeneca in 2016.
In 2016 some 100 companies jointly created the "AMR Industry Alliance" to combat bacterial resistance, including Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Sanofi and AstraZeneca. They signed a joint declaration pledging to invest in antibiotics research.
NDR's investigations show that almost half of the companies that signed the declaration and researched antibiotics are no longer active in this field. According to industry insiders, Pfizer and Allergan, too, are no longer developing new antibiotic agents, although they are also members of the AMR Industry Alliance. In response to NDR's questions, Allergan replied vaguely that it is continuing its research into the treatment of infectious diseases. When asked whether this includes new antibiotics, there was no response. Pfizer repeatedly referred to a program working to combine two compounds, both of which have been in use for some time - not really new developments.
In addition to major corporations, many small and medium-sized companies also signed the 2016 declaration. About 50 of them were researching new antibiotic agents at the time. However, more than 20 of these companies have since given up their research or declared bankruptcy. Many of the smaller companies struggle with a lack of investment.
The development of a new antibiotic costs hundreds of millions of euros. If the drug is approved, then there are even more expenses for production, distribution and marketing. Small companies that don't have additional income from other kinds of profitable drugs are usually unable to meet these costs on their own. For this reason, many international experts consider it to be a fatal mistake that large corporations are withdrawing from the field.
Until the 1990s, almost every major pharmaceutical company was developing antibiotics. Some corporations, such as Bayer, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly, dropped out of this area more than ten years ago. Currently, only four of the world's 25 largest pharmaceutical companies appear to be continuing to develop new antibiotics - MSD, GlaxoSmithKline, Otsuka and Roche, in its subsidiary Genentech. However, they did not respond to NDR's questions about their specific activities, such as the number of researchers employed in this field or their level of investment.
The reason that large pharmaceutical companies are pulling out of antibiotics research appears to be purely economic. It is much harder to make money with antibiotics than it is with things like cancer drugs or treatments for chronic diseases. Antibiotics are usually only applied for a few days. In addition, new drugs should be used only in emergencies when none of the conventional antibiotics are effective. They are kept as reserves in order to preserve their effectiveness.
Ursula Theuretzbacher described the withdrawal of the major corporations as "irresponsible" in an interview with the ARD program Panorama. She works as an independent consultant in antibiotics development for the World Health Organization (WHO) and other institutions. "For me, it is absolutely clear that the pharmaceutical industry has a responsibility to society," says Theuretzbacher, and this responsibility should be acknowledged. Ultimately, large parts of their profits depend on the existence of antibiotics. For example, many expensive cancer drugs can only be used if effective antibiotics are available, because the patients have a very high risk of infection.
However, Thomas Cueni, Director General of IFPMA and Chairman of the AMR Industry Alliance, is reluctant to blame the pharmaceutical industry. He says that there is simply no market for antibiotics at the moment. Cueni says that he doesn't know of any company that could justify to its owners investing in areas where there's a very high risk that the research won't be successful - and where even if it is successful, it won't make any money. However, he is well aware that it's not good for the industry image to give the impression that they're simply checking out. "And it's certainly not good for all of us who ultimately do need new antibiotics," said Cueni in his interview with Panorama.
According to Thomas Cueni, the industry has invested at least $2 billion in research and development of products related to antimicrobial resistance in 2016 which was "four times more than the public sector the same year". However, this includes a number of different projects, including preventive therapies, vaccinations and diagnostics. It is unclear how much the industry currently spends on antibiotics and other AMR-related products after some of the big companies have left the field.
Existing drugs are becoming increasingly ineffective as resistant bacteria continue to spread. It is "one of the major problems that we will have to face during this century," says Peter Beyer of the WHO. The United Nations, too, is calling for investment in research.
Alongside climate change, bacterial resistance is seen as one of the biggest global threats. In the European Union, around 33,000 people die every year as a result of infections with resistant bacteria, and the global figures are in the hundreds of thousands. The United Nations warns that the death toll will skyrocket if immediate action is not taken. By 2050, there could be 10 million deaths from drug-resistant diseases every year - that's more people than are currently dying from cancer.
*Note: An earlier version of the article stated that the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA) had formed the "Industry Alliance". The IFPMA informed the NDR that the approximately 100 companies had joined together to form the alliance. This was changed accordingly in the article.