Race for the exits on antibiotic research…because its not profitable enough

In light of the latest “superbugs” that are on the move one would think that big Pharma would be scrambling to respond with a new array of broad spectrum antibiotics.  After all, these bugs are defying our current arsenal and scoffing at what a few years ago was the latest and greatest of our new broad spectrum antibiotics.  Why wouldn’t  they want to get “in” on the next antibiotic wave?

Because it isn’t profitable!

That’s right, according to a recent article in Reuters,  Pharma can do far better tinkering with  a new cancer drug that they can sell for $50,000.  Why worry about a piddly antibiotic when  the public would demand something  “affordable”?   When free markets bump up against a public health need, we, in turn, bump up against a very inconvenient fact of life.

Public health needs and market forces don’t mix….

That’s what I said.  Market forces have no business in health care.  They create an adversarial position between the patient and profit.  For example, treating a patient is not necessarily in the best interests of a for-profit insurer, though that is why the patient was paying an insurer for years on end.   They paid into the system so that if they needed treatment, they would be able to afford it.  But the bottom line dictates that the insurer delay, foot-drag and otherwise obstruct the process.  If the insurer plays their cards right, the patient might get better on their own (miracles happen) or die (more likely) if the delay is long enough.

Vaccines and antibiotics are not that profitable….

In the world of antibiotics and vaccines, we run smack up against the same problem.  In this case, its big Pharma that is the problem.  Liability is high for creating drugs such as antibiotics or vaccines, but the benefits for shareholders are not as obvious.  In recent years we’ve had big Pharma fleeing vaccine production.  In fact, we’ve had several critical shortages of influenza vaccine in recent years as a result.  Now its antibiotics as well.

This is why we USED to have a strong public health system.  Back in the day, we turned to the public sector for support in these areas.  Of course we have been dismantling that system brick by brick for years and the sequester is making that issue many times worse.

Innovation may be necessary even when it is not profitable.  Some research tracks need to be pursued even if they don’t bolster someone’s bottom line. This should serve as a wakeup call for all but the totally insane.  the PUBLIC SECTOR of health care is very much needed to protect public health.  Superbugs have to be addressed.  Whether profitable or not.  And if the private sector can’t or wont’ address these issues, the public sector must either address it on their own or find a way to make it profitable for Pharma to step up to the plate.  Unless of course we the people think that having Americans dropping like flies from something that is inherently fixable is fine and dandy.

© 2013 – RG Hicks – http://reinnovatingamerica.com – All rights reserved.


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2 Responses to Race for the exits on antibiotic research…because its not profitable enough

  1. Chris Edge says:

    I enjoyed reading this piece, and I couldn’t agree more, well said.

    Problem is how do you encourage Pharma industries to produce a pill which is – as you say – likely to be unprofitable, a drug you only have to take for two weeks and you’re better compared to an anti-depressant which a person can be hooked on for years.

    I think either massive subsidies are required, otherwise government research councils are going to have to specifically encourage research into new antibiotics by hand-picking the right proposals.

    • Ruthmarie says:

      Thanks for commenting!

      Yes, what we need is investment in the system. Public sector money has traditionally been used for public health concerns that fail to be profitable for industry.

      Most of those monies were provided through tax dollars via the NIH (National Institute of Health). That budget has been slashed to the point where an entire generation of scientists are just quitting. Many are considering moving abroad. You can’t have public health without public $$$ and private industry will have its hands firmly in pockets unless they can smell a profit. Its a big hot mess! No money, means no grants (subsidies).

      Drug Research is generally bifurcated. Initial discovery, initial research, is almost 100% academic. R&D of a specific product is generally done in the private sector. The role of the public sector is to support the needed BASIC research which then is taken over by pharma when they can see the potential for money.

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