Antibiotic Research and Development - Public vs. Private Funding

by David Shlaes    Contributor        Biopharma insight / Biopharma Insights

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Over the past decade, pull incentives as a solution to the broken antibiotic market have been proposed to entice companies into antibiotic research and development.  These incentives would essentially provide a market, and therefore a return on investment for pharmaceutical companies. Almost all of today’s inadequate antibiotic pipeline is provided by biotech and small pharma.  All are threatened with loss of investor interest because of the failed marketplace and many are experiencing difficulty in raising funds either from public or private markets.  One alternative to providing money to the “evil” pharmaceutical industry via a substantial pull incentive is to create publicly funded non-profit organizations or public-private ventures that would essentially replace the industry in antibiotic research, development and commercialization. Two proponents of this approach are Lord Jim O’Neill (of the O’Neill Commission or Antimicrobial Resistance Review fame) and Ramanan Laxminarayan of the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy and of GARDP. Both, clearly, are key thought leaders in the area. 

The proposal sounds great. Who wants to give the pharmaceutical industry money, after all? But I find myself scratching my head about this. How, precisely, would this work? I presume we’re talking about government funding for an antibiotic R&D organization. In the US, would this be the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease?  They have a strong track record in vaccine and in antiviral research – but antibiotics – not so much. Commercialization of products - not at all. In the UK would this be the Medical Research Council?  In Europe would it be the European Commission?  None of these august bodies have the experience required to establish a successful antibiotic R&D organization (in my humble view). The Innovate Medicines Initiative, an EU-funded public-private venture, has had mixed success tackling small pieces of antibiotic R&D but has not delivered a product to market and was not designed for that purpose. Then are we talking about establishing an independent organization with government funding? Who would decide who would lead the group? (On the positive side, there are lots of available antibiotic researchers available for hire.) To whom would the organization be accountable?
In addition to the questions posed above, we should all recognize the precedent this approach could set. Just think.  We could solve the entire pharmaceutical pricing problem with publicly funded R&D efforts – not just for antibiotics, but for all therapeutic areas. We could eliminate the evil pharmaceutical industry altogether.  Do we want to go there?

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  • Matthew D Healy 2019-05-28 15:53

    One of my ideas is a much longer patent clock for novel antibiotics. That could make them somewhat more like biologics, in that part of the appeal for biologics to industry is that biosimilars take much longer to gain market share than do generic small molecules.

  • David Shlaes 2019-06-09 16:26

    Unfortunately, since antibiotics garner no market, extending exclusivity gains little, especially after discounting for inflation.


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