Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

Pharmaceutical companies could be doing much more to tackle the threat of superbugs, according to former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill, who led a UK review of antimicrobial resistance published two years ago.

An estimated 700,000 people around the global die each year from drug-resistant strains of common diseases, and the figure could rise to 10-million by 2050 if the problem is not tackled head-on, according to the review. One-third of those deaths would be due to tuberculosis (TB).

There is limited data on SA, but the studies conducted to date have found very high rates of antibiotic resistance. About two-thirds of tertiary hospital patients with Klebsiella pneumoniae bloodstream infections are resistant to first-line antibiotics, and about a third of hospital patients with bloodstream Escherichia coli have drug-resistant strains, University of Cape Town infectious disease specialist Marc Mendelson told Business Day in January. SA also has a high burden of drug-resistant TB, due to the scale of its epidemic.

There is growing global recognition that without more judicious use of the antibiotics currently available and swifter development of new products, the world may return to the pre-antibiotic era in which something as simple as an infected scratch or insect bite could prove deadly. But despite widespread acknowledgement of the problem, there has been little progress in developing new drugs, diagnostics or vaccines, said O’Neill.

“The amount of talk that goes on and the lack of progress is very frustrating. Pharmaceutical companies could be doing more,” said O’Neill, who plans to propose a new pilot model for funding research into new drugs and diagnostics in the UK, in which the government and pharmaceutical companies would jointly share responsibility.

“There are two core problems: pharmaceutical companies think like pure commercial entities and regard the economics of the model for antibiotics as highly unattractive. The second dilemma is that governments are not pressuring them enough because they [pharmaceutical companies] have very powerful lobbies,” he said.

“We are in an era where we need more profit for purpose. I would accuse pharmaceutical companies of being really good balance sheet managers that have the technical knowledge to manufacture and distribute pills. But they are not focused on their social purpose … we need to see companies start to think beyond this obsession with quarterly results,” he said.