The UK Government has launched a review into how the industry can churn out more antibiotics in a bid to prevent the ticking time bomb of resistance.

The move to step up the fight against antibiotic resistance sees Prime Minster David Cameron appointing former Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill to lead a panel of experts to look at antibiotic resistance and ways to encourage the pharma industry to develop more drugs for bad bugs. 

Cameron warned the world could re-enter the “dark ages of medicine” unless action was taken now. 

“If we fail to act we are looking at an almost unthinkable scenario where antibiotics no longer work and we are cast back into the dark ages of medicine where treatable infections and injuries will kill once again. Resistance to antibiotics is now a very real and worrying threat.” 

With return on investment low for antibiotics, pharma companies have been hesitant to put their efforts in the area. As such, no new classes of antibiotics have been discovered since 1987. Several high ranking health experts have recently warned of the “apocalypse” that could be before us if drastic action is not taken. 

The panel will review three main issues: the increases in drug-resistant strains, the lack of development of new classes of antibiotics, and the over-use of the drugs. Interestingly O’Neill, who will lead the panel, has no biological experience but it is believed to be important that the panel is headed by an economist, who will help explore the financial incentives to get the pharma industry back into investing mode. 

“This is not just a scientific and medical challenge, but an economic and social one too, which would require analysis of regulatory systems and behavioural changes to solve them,” said Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, which is providing half a million pounds in funding for the review. 

The ABPI’s director of research and development policy Louise Leong welcomed the news of the review and acknowledged there was not enough development of new antibiotics due to scientific, regulatory and financial obstacles despite the industry still investing in this area. “We know that antibiotics are undervalued and their price has not always reflected their value to society,” she said. 

Also in response to the news, Professor Jayne Lawrence, chief scientist at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, called for a “sea change” in the funding of new discoveries. “Some antibiotics are only used for short periods and therefore the volume of sales often isn’t enough to recoup the investment in development. New initiatives are needed to spur on companies to discover new antibiotics.” 

Lawrence suggests pharma companies could be partly paid upfront for the cost of drug development, thereafter receiving royalties, rather than by volume sold when the drug reaches the market. 

And Leong called for a multi-stakeholder response and the need to work in partnership “as a matter of urgency to create aligned incentives to encourage the development of new antibiotics”. The Association intends to contribute to the exploration of alternative economic models that will support appropriate prescribing, she added. 

The panel’s proposals will aim to be discussed at next year’s G7 summit hosted by Germany.