As Drug-Resistant Superbugs Continue To Spread, U.S. Taps Pharma Giant To Develop New Antibiotics

(Credit: How Stuff Works)

The U.S. government has tapped pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline to create new antibiotics meant to fight the rise of drug-resistant bacteria and safeguard against bioterrorism. The first-of-its kind public-private partnership could be worth up to $200 million when all is said and done.

The deal may raise some eyebrows considering GSK’s massive corporate resources and recent controversies surrounding the company’s marketing practices and safety procedures. Last year, GSK plead guilty to criminal charges for promoting off-label drug use and not reporting safety data for a popular diabetes medication. The British drug maker also paid $3 billion to the Justice Department in a fraud settlement.

But officials consider the unusual arrangement between GSK and the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) necessary because pharmaceutical companies have few financial incentives to invest in antibiotic production:

The problem of antibiotic resistance and the rise of so-called “superbugs” that cannot be treated with traditional medicines has been growing for years, but drug companies have been reluctant to invest in new medicines because of poor returns.

Patients tend to take antibiotics for only a short period, prices are traditionally low and any new antibiotics are likely to be reserved for serious infections – once again minimizing the sales opportunity.

David Payne, head of GSK’s antibacterial discovery unit, said public-private partnerships, like the one with BARDA, were a key part to solving the problem.

The government’s decision reflects just how concerned public health officials are about the rise of so-called “superbugs” such as carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). Some scientists predict that CRE alone could kill half of all people who contract it since it can withstand even the toughest antibiotics.

Professor Dame Sally Davies, England’s chief medical officer, has recently warned that without the production of effective new drugs to fight these types of bacteria, the human species could be looking at a world in which seven percent of all hospital admissions stem from a drug-resistant infection — a problem that she has compared to global warming in its scope and potential to undermine worldwide health. “It’s a ticking time bomb,” she told England’s The Independent.

What adds to health officials’ concerns is the fact that zero major new antibiotics have been developed in over two decades, leaving the entire world unprepared to tackle an epidemic. Groups such as the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA) have issued the ambitious goal of creating 10 new bacteria-fighting drugs by 2020 — but are likely to fall far short of that, by the organization’s own admission. “The barriers… seem insurmountable,” said IDSA official Henry Chambers.

But the consequences of failure would be so drastic that the federal government now views it necessary to directly intervene, with the assistance of a pharmaceutical giant. Helen Boucher, another IDSA official, spelled out just what that failure would mean for medical services and public health. “We’re on the precipice of returning to the dark days before antibiotics enabled safer surgery, chemotherapy and the care of premature infants,” she said in a recent interview with the Times of India. “We’re all at risk.”