Funding outlook shifts in fight against antimicrobial resistance

GlaxoSmithKline employees work on the production of antibiotics in Brazil. Photo by: GSK / CC BY-NC

LONDON — Twenty-two research-based biopharmaceutical companies — including AstraZenicaGlaxoSmithKline and Merck — invested more than $2 billion in research and development to counter antimicrobial resistance in 2016, according to a survey released Thursday, potentially upending widespread perceptions that the private sector is trailing institutional donors in tackling AMR.

The sum is more than four times the amount currently invested by governments and philanthropic organizations worldwide, according to the report from the AMR Alliance, a platform of 100 biotechnology, diagnostic, generics and research-based pharmaceutical companies and trade associations that was formed to drive and measure industry progress to curb AMR.

Based on a survey of 36 AMR Alliance members, it is the first assessment of private sector investment in the threat.

However, the report also points to the fragility of funding to combat AMR, which kills more than 700,000 people per year. The World Health Organization estimates that deaths due to AMR could rise to 10 million per year by 2050 — more than cancer. New antibiotics, or preventative measures such as vaccines, are the best hope against AMR, which could make the most minor health conditions and routine treatments lethal within a lifetime.

“The private sector has a crucial role to play in addressing drug-resistant superbugs globally. It is encouraging to see commitment and concrete examples of progress from 36 companies — but much more needs to be done within the private sector to help address this complex challenge,” Professor Sally Davies, the United Kingdom’s chief medical officer and a member of the United Nations Interagency Coordination Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, said at a briefing in London on Friday.

“We must continue to make the case for action and work across all sectors, countries, and professions if we are to have any chance of success,” she said.

The new report, compiled by consultancy and think tank SustainAbility, is the first released by the AMR Alliance, which was born out of the 2016 Davos Declaration, and represents more than 100 biopharmaceutical companies.

The findings offer an early snapshot of industry investments in AMR, but experts in the field say the results reflect a greater-than-expected openness within the industry to step up to counter AMR, and the misuse and overuse of antibiotics in both human and animal pharmaceuticals. It shows that 22 Alliance-member companies were the largest funders of antibiotic research and development in 2016, including AstraZenica, Johnson & Johnson, and Novartis, among others. By comparison, public sector donors contributed more than $500 million in 2016, led by the governments of the United States, U.K., Germany and Canada.

At the same time, the report reveals that funding is uneven, with many investments targeted at new and innovative drugs rather than later-stage development. The key role of the private sector in tackling AMR also means that funding is vulnerable to volatile industry interests, which requires stronger incentives from outside stakeholders to keep up and streamline funding.

“Industry’s role in addressing drug-resistant infections is critical and it is heartening to see many companies stepping up to help tackle this global health threat,” Jeremy Farrar, chair of the Wellcome Trust, said at the launch event in London.

“The early stages of the treatment pipeline are now benefiting from partnership and investment by industry, civil society, and government, but without urgent action to also address the broken economic model for later clinical development, this progress is under threat.”

The findings make clear that without new incentives, biopharmaceutical companies are likely to reduce antibiotic research and development investment. Industry leaders also said more is needed to incentivize companies not to front-load investments in new drug R&D, and to take into account the potential of stronger diagnostic tools to prevent misuse of antibiotics.

Farrar said he hopes to see “government and industry work together to develop and implement workable incentives, which must include measures to ensure new treatments are used appropriately, effectively, and are available to all who need them.”

Director general of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations and chair of the AMR Alliance, Thomas Cueni told Devex that all stakeholders and industry members must now come together to incentivize good practice and make the most of this new-found momentum.

“I think we are being very blunt, we acknowledge what’s happening in terms of push incentives, but push incentives are not enough; we will need pull incentives,” he said. He explained that while push incentives encourage companies to get new drugs and products in the pipeline, pull incentives will even out investments, encouraging industry leaders to bring products all the way through the pipeline.

Options include market entry awards, which reward companies for bringing new products into the market; or providing reimbursements for unsold medication, to encourage companies to “leave antibiotics in reserves” rather than undertake sales campaigns.

Cueni said some in the industry have also expressed concern that “we are too narrowly focused on bringing innovative new medicines to the market,” and added, “they believe the incentives should also respond to the challenges of other health technologies.”

Still, Cueni said, “What’s really important here is the industry is more open-minded I think than we have been in the past. What we see is the urgency to get this debate off the shelves.”

Read more Devex coverage on antimicrobial resistance.

About the author

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    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.