Antibiotics are no longer a money-maker for America’s drug companies. and that’s bad news for patients relying on them to stave off illness.

It has long been recognized that bacterial infections are become more stubborn and dangerous, as germs become resistant to the drugs doctors have relied upon for decades.

As those legacy drugs -- some developed in the 1920s -- become less effective, there are fewer new antibiotics being developed to take their place. Part of the problem with the newer drugs, ironically, is their effectiveness. While drugs for diseases such as cancer or diabetes are used for years, patients need antibiotics only for several days. Drug companies that spent billions developing new treatments never recoup their investment. Startup companies are going bankrupt, and giants like Novartis are leaving the antibiotic market altogether. In the 1980s, there were 18 major companies developing new antibiotics. Today there are three.

“This is a crisis that should alarm everyone,” Dr. Helen Boucher, an infectious disease specialist at Tufts Medical Center, told the New York Times. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, antibiotic-resistant bacteria cause more than 2.8 million infections and 35,000 deaths in the United States every year.

“Unless your scientists invent new antibiotics, we’ll kill 10 million people annually by 2050,” Greg Frank, executive director of Working to Fight AMR, an industry-funded group pushing for more support for drug development

Addressing the problem will require help from the federal government, and it seems to be an issue has strong bipartisan report. The DISARM Act, introduced in Congress earlier this year, would, among other things:

-- Direct Medicare to reimburse hospitals for the use of newer, more effective -- and expensive -- antibacterials;

-- Extend the length of time pharmaceutical companies can hold exclusive patents for the new drugs, to give them a better chance at making back their investment;

-- Create a program to buy and store critical antibiotics so the national health care system does not fall victim to a shortage.

Congress should act now.

“This is a problem that can be solved, it’s not that complicated,” Dr. Ryan Cirz, founder of a antibiotic startup that lost its funding, told the Times. “We can deal with the problem now, or we can just sit here and wait until greater numbers of people start dying. That would be a tragedy.”


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