The Coming Crisis: Where are the Antibiotics?

This past Monday, one of the top news stories of the day dealt with a topic that, in my opinion, doesn’t  get enough coverage: drug resistance. The CDC released a report, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, which takes a look at germs that are resistant to antibiotics, one of the greatest public health discoveries in human history.

I like when health officials and scientists are blunt. Sometimes we get too caught up in minutiae and specificity that we lose our core message. Honestly, getting your message across to the public and to the right people is hard, and the vast minority of scientists and public health officials are not good at it. At all. However, when someone has a clear message, like this statement from Dr. Tom Frieden, the Director of the CDC, I take notice. And I hope everyone else does too:

“Antibiotic resistance is rising for many different pathogens that are threats to health. If we don’t act now, our medicine cabinet will be empty and we won’t have the antibiotics we need to save lives.”

If that statement doesn’t cause you to stop, shudder, and seriously think about the consequences of having no effective antibiotics, it may be time to revisit a post from last year on this blog dealing with that very topic.  Go on and have a looksie, and we’ll continue right back here when you’re ready. Seriously–getcha some background before we continue.

Welcome back! Next, let’s look at the important role pharmaceutical companies play in producing antibiotics.

The Pharmaceutical Companies

According to an article in the Chicago Tribune earlier this year, the number of new systemic antibiotics approved by the US Food and Drug Administration dropped from 16 between 1983 and 1987 to just two in the past five years.

Pharmaceutical companies are, well, companies. They exist to make money. Obviously, the medicine created from these companies help millions of people around the world, myself included. It would seem that now is the perfect time for more and more pharmaceutical companies to invest in the research and development of new antibiotics. But this is not the case.

In the world of pharmaceuticals, antibiotics do not bring in as much revenue as almost all of the other drugs produced. Therefore, there’s not that much of a financial incentive for these companies to produce the antibiotics. Most people also don’t realize the enormous amount of money and time that go into the researching and testing of new drugs. It’s a very strict and rigorous process that takes years. And right now, the incentive for most companies is just not there.

What Happens Now?

My intent is not to make pharmaceutical companies out to be the “bad guys”. I know many people have opinions about “Big Pharma”, but that’s not the focus of this post. But in our society of the free market and capitalism, the fact that money is a big motivator should not be a surprise to anyone.

I also don’t want to give the impression that there are no pharmaceutical companies in existence today who are not researching, or at least allocating time and money, to producing new antibiotics. GlaxoSmithKline was recently given about $200 million from the US to develop new drugs. Some other companies are following suit, but it is not enough to stave off the looming public health crisis that some, including Dr. Frieden, can see coming.