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Nationalised drug companies could tackle antibiotic resistance

Influential economist says he is 'shocked' by pharmaceutical industry's lack of investment

Mark Gould

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Part of the drugs industry should be nationalised to make state-run utility companies to produce new antibiotics, an influential economist has argued.

Cross-bench peer Lord Jim O'Neill, who advised the government on antibiotic resistance, said he was “shocked” by pharmaceutical companies lack of investment in tackling drug-resistant infections. He said the solution may be to "just take it away from them and take it over".


The drastic measure would be intended to ensure that the development and production of new antibiotics were not at the mercy of capitalist market forces. Lord O’Neill may bring a deal of insight here as his curriculum vitae includes a spell as chief economist at global banking giants Goldman Sachs.

Speaking at a London press briefing on “fixing the broken antibiotics market”, he compared it to the way banks or parts of their businesses were taken over by the government after the 2008 financial crash.

Other suggestions included “prizes” for new drug developers, a “Netflix” model that would see health providers pay for the right to access new medicines, and pricing antibiotics in a way that properly reflects their value to society, had led to talk but no action, he said.

Another possibility was a “carrot and stick” approach that taxed drug companies opting out of antibiotics while rewarding others that stayed in the game.

Three years ago, Lord O'Neill proposed solutions in his Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, including giving pharmaceutical companies around a billion dollars for each novel antibiotic they developed.

Lord O'Neill said that since then there had been empty words from global policy makers and that he was coming round to the idea of, in effect, nationalising part of the pharmaceutical industry.

He revealed that he floated the idea of a publicly owned pharmaceutical company in his first month as the government’s “superbug tsar”. Between 2014 and 2016, he was chairman of the Review on Antimicrobial Resistance, which produced several reports on the looming dangers of overuse of antibiotics and drug-resistant bacteria.

“I was told that was ridiculously naive because the pharmaceutical companies are the only ones that have the depth of manufacturing and distribution capability. It seems to me that’s not really getting us very far," he said.

Dr Sheuli Porkess, the deputy chief scientific officer at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), responded by saying: "Nationalising antibiotic development simply won't get us the antibiotics we need."

She said that in 2016 the private sector invested around $2bn in research and development of new antibiotics, roughly four times as much as all government and foundations combined.

The ABPI said it had been working closely with government for the past two years and companies were "ready and waiting" to test a new model for supporting antibiotic research and development.

"We shouldn't write off this plan before we've tried it," Dr Porkess said.

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