Europe’s leading scientific bodies say new financial incentives are needed to encourage drugs companies to seek out and develop new antibiotics.

In its report Tackling antibacterial resistance in Europe, the European Academies Science Advisory Council warns that deaths from previously treatable infections will become more common unless there is greater investment in the science needed to tackle antibiotic resistance.

The report highlights the ever-growing problem of drug resistance in pathogens such as MRSA, Clostridium difficile, E-coli and infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, pneumonia and meningitis.

Scientists in the EASAC’s member organisations across Europe, including the UK’s Royal Academy, are calling for the EU and member states to provide greater support for the development of simple and cheap means of identifying specific infections as early as possible and greater support for drug companies that are seeking to develop new treatments.

The report also calls on authorities to wake up to the crisis. It says more prudent use of antibiotics, more effective containment of the spread of resistance and greater cooperation and coordination across Europe are also needed as a matter of urgency. Hospital-acquired infections alone are believed to account for 175,000 deaths in Europe each year, many of which are attributable to antibiotic resistance.

Professor Volker ter Meulen, president of the Leopoldina Academy of Sciences, Germany and chair of the report’s working group, said: “The problem of antibiotic resistance is growing. Our concern is that the European policy makers are not doing enough to stimulate the development of new antibacterial drugs and encourage the sharing of information between member states. This is vital to identify patterns and tackle resistance.

“For example, R&D for new antibiotic drugs is not an attractive option for drug companies in comparison with treatments for long-term chronic illnesses – which offer a better return on investment. Drug companies will need to be incentivised to continue valuable antibiotic R&D.”

The report says that the re-emergence of bacterial infections will have serious knock-on effects on EU economies, as absenteeism rates increase. It also warns that antibiotic resistant pathogens could enter the food chain via livestock.

Professor Richard Moxon, of the University of Oxford and a member of the working group, said: “It is crucially important to rebuild European academic capability in microbiology and clinical infectious disease infrastructure.” But he warned the problem of antibiotic resistance was “not just a medical issue”.

“Social habits may lead to increased cases of resistance – such as GPs over-prescribing general antibiotics instead of ones designed to treat specific pathogens. In some EU states, antibiotics can even be bought without prescriptions,” he said.

“All factors that could lead to antibiotic resistance or be affected by it need to be considered. Government departments across the EU responsible for public health, environment, industry and scientific research have to work together to take action to tackle this problem.”

Observing and recording drug resistance is also vital, the report notes. The European Commission is responsible for coordinating this surveillance, and gathers information from member states to plot the spread of infections. However, the report found that data collected is of a variable standard – making comparisons between countries difficult.

“Knowing where the problems are most common is extremely valuable to predict possible impacts on the economy, to bring about changes in healthcare practice and inform research funders throughout Europe on where research funding should be focused,” said Professor ter Meulen.

The report concludes by noting that in order to help the pharmaceutical industry there might be: supplemental intellectual property protections (for example ‘wild-card’ patent extension and extended market exclusivity); tax incentives for R&D; guaranteed market; liability protections; SME-specific support and; a new independent body to prioritise discovery research objectives and to target incentives

The authors note, however, that the "main message is the need to ensure a sustainable R&D infrastructure – as vital for the private sector as it is for the public sector". By Michael Day