Taking action on the global threat of superbugs

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Hubertus Von Baumbach: "If we do not act fast, we will soon set back medicine to the 19th century, before the discovery of penicillin, when a simple infection could kill." [Shutterstock / royaltystockphoto.com]

COVID-19 has demonstrated in a quite dramatic way the huge impact of a global threat on public health and economy. While the COVID-19 crisis took us by surprise, our world faces a silent threat that is predictable and preventable, writes Hubertus Von Baumbach.

Hubertus Von Baumbach is the CEO of pharmaceutical company Boehringer Ingelheim. This opinion piece has been written exclusively for EURACTIV.

The rise of antibiotic-resistant infections – also called antimicrobial resistance, or AMR – is a looming global crisis we have known for quite some time.

Antibiotic resistance kills about 700,000 people globally every year. Superbugs that are resistant to antibiotics are on the rise, affecting every aspect of medicine today. We rely on the availability of effective antibiotics to be able to do everything from wisdom tooth extractions to cancer chemotherapy.

But if we do not act fast, we will soon set back medicine to the 19th century, before the discovery of penicillin, when a simple infection could kill. Therefore, besides supporting and promoting therapeutic use of antibiotics according to responsible use guidelines, we urgently need new antibiotics and we need them better sooner than later.

Challenge of developing new antibiotics

COVID-19 has shown how vulnerable to infectious disease societies, economies and health systems are. Being prepared would be a reasonable and cost-effective investment in the long-run. This is particularly true for AMR as one of the most urgent health challenges of our time.

Currently our health care systems do not recognize the value of new antibiotics. Nearly all antibiotics brought to market over the past years have been variations of existing drugs. And many promising candidates fail along the way.

Today there is no viable market for antibiotics, even though AMR creates huge societal costs. New antibiotics are used sparingly to preserve effectiveness – that is why developers could not recoup their investments.

This results in a lack of funding for antibiotic R&D. Many candidates are in danger of never reaching patients while there is a huge public health need for new antibiotics.

As of 2017, only about 500 scientists globally were studying antibiotics. Numerous antibiotic-focused biotech companies have declared bankruptcy or excited this space due to the lack of commercial sustainability.

This has resulted in the loss of valuable expertise and resources that are urgently needed to develop next-generation antibiotics as vital tools for humanity. A dangerous gap that needs to be bridged.

AMR Action Fund taking action

The UN and other intergovernmental economic organizations highlighted the AMR innovation challenge and called for government action on antibiotic incentives, but little happened. Today we have a critical opportunity to tackle AMR that we do not want to waste. More than 20 leading pharmaceutical companies are launching an innovative collective venture to bridge the existing gap.

The AMR Action Fund invests nearly $ 1 billion to respond to the AMR threat. The fund is a broad alliance of industry and non-industry stakeholders that aims to bring 2-4 new antibiotics to patients by the end of this decade.

This broad alliance responds to a pressing global public health crisis. While the necessary policy reforms to support antibiotic innovation will take time, we as an industry have stepped up to face this global challenge.

Investor companies of the fund come from all over the world, including those with and without antibiotic portfolios. We will focus on investments in assets centred around the WHO/CDC priority lists of pathogens to bolster and accelerate research and development.

We will invest across all stages of clinical development with a focus on early stages. Investments will be made in smaller biotech companies dedicated to developing novel treatments against bacterial infections, which make a significant difference in clinical practice by addressing major unmet needs and reducing patient mortality.

Our goal is to address major unmet needs and maximize public health impact as well as to ensure there is a sustainable pipeline of new antibiotics to effectively fight superbugs.

Unique collaborative platform

Collaborations with external partners play an essential role in helping to deliver innovative drugs.

By creating a unique platform, we as an industry provide technical support to portfolio companies allowing them to tap into a unique ecosystem of pharmaceutical experts and resources that are critical to ensure the successful development of new antibiotics. By sharing our knowledge, we will enhance the likelihood of success.

With support from multilateral development banks, philanthropic organizations, other impact funds and strategic partners policy reforms will be initiated and facilitated to create an encouraging environment for long-term investment into antibiotic R&D.

Time for policymakers to revitalize antibiotics market

By bridging innovative candidates in the pipeline through the most challenging later stages of drug development, the AMR Action Fund provides governments time to make policy reforms enabling a well-filled antibiotic pipeline.

Nonetheless, decisive government action is needed to revitalize the antibiotics market and drive sustainable investments in antibiotic R&D that meets the needs of patients today and tomorrow. Policymakers worldwide should enact market-based reforms to create an environment where antibiotic R&D can flourish for decades to come.

These actions need to include reimbursement reforms as well as new pull incentives helping to strengthen and accelerate antibiotic development. We highly welcome the leadership of policymakers like Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and national health ministers such as Jens Spahn, as they have made this topic a high priority on their agenda.

Like with COVID-19, the global AMR challenge requires a joint approach. Collaboration and partnering will be key to success. The pharmaceutical industry sees the need and knows about the obstacles.

We therefore took action with the first step towards a solution. Yet, we will only succeed if the other stakeholders follow suit and make it their cause. Policymakers and companies, both must act now together to safeguard our future from the global threat of AMR.

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