Issue No. 4: As Researchers Abandon Quest for New Antibiotics, Policymakers Propose Remedies Imagine if a research firm set on solving the foremost public health crisis — the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as “superbugs” — were to hire some of the world’s top scientists. Imagine, then, if those scientists were on the verge of success.
Surely, that company would be extremely attractive to investors. After all, superbugs are expected to kill 10 million people annually by 2050.
Think again. That scenario just happened. Achaogen, a startup biotech firm, won FDA approval for its superbug treatment in June 2018. But sales didn’t even eclipse $1 million in that first year. The company went into survival mode, even selling lab equipment to stay afloat. In a final act of desperation, the firm priced 15 million shares at $1 in February 2019. By April, the company had gone up in flames.
This is the short version of Achaogen’s story, and unless policymakers fix the broken market for new antibiotics, it could soon be the story of every other research firm in this space.
Every year, drug-resistant bacteria and fungi kill 700,000 people worldwide. They also cause nearly 3 million infections in the United States alone, according to newly-released numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Within a few decades, superbugs could kill more people than cancer. Yet most drug companies are abandoning antibiotic research. Why? Because it’s nearly impossible to make money on new superbug treatments.
As NPR highlighted just this month, the market is broken. Fixing it is a matter of life and death. Fortunately, policymakers, academics, and those in the broader medical community are coming to understand what’s at stake. And they’re coming together to propose — and, in some cases, enact — policies and programs aimed at spurring the creation of new medicines.
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