In the latest in a wave of Big Pharma companies retreating from the field of antibiotics, Novartis has decided to drop its antibacterial and antiviral early-stage research programs, laying off 140 staff in the US. This comes at a time when antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria – so-called ‘superbugs’ – are spreading globally, posing a serious threat to global health.
“While the science for these programs is compelling, we have decided to prioritize our resources in other areas”
In a prepared statement, Novartis said, “While the science for these programs is compelling, we have decided to prioritize our resources in other areas where we believe we are better positioned to develop innovative medicines that will have a positive impact for patients. The need for these types of medicines is clear and to maximize the chances that these programs will one day help patients we are actively engaged in out-licensing discussions with companies focused on developing medicines in these areas.”
The decision of Novartis to shutter its antibiotics research follows similar decisions by fellow Big Pharma players AstraZeneca, Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly in recent years. New antibiotic drugs often only offer a slight improvement over existing drugs in the same class and also offer thin profit margins compared to treatments in areas such as heart disease or erectile dysfunction. Ed Cara of Gizmodo reports that even if a new antibiotic is made available to patients, it is unlikely to recoup the costs accrued during the approval process. Due to fears of speeding along antibiotic resistance, newer treatments are generally used as a last resort for resistant infections, putting a cap on their profit margins.
Governments and international organizations have been attempting to curb this move away from antibiotics and incentivize Big Pharma to keep its research programs ongoing through subsidies and funding investments. However, this does not appear to be having the desired effect and research into new antibiotics is increasingly being left to a small group of biotechs.
FiercePharma’s Phil Taylor does note that this is not necessarily a problem, as promising drug candidates or even whole companies can be acquired, as in the case of Merck and Co’s USD 9.5 billion takeover of Cubist Pharma in 2014. Big Pharma is also participating in the development of new drugs for resistant infections indirectly, via public-private consortia that take an open approach to discovery and development – often spearheaded by academia – and so do not require the same level of in-house staffing or facilities.
Despite these caveats, the Access to Medicine Foundation (AMF) has stated in a recent report that Big Pharma’s move away from antibiotic research spells danger for global health. Gizmodo’s Cara notes that in 2018 alone, there have been three cases of gonorrhea found to be completely untreatable through standard medication. Similar cases involving different bugs will inevitably come. Superbugs are already responsible for 700,000 deaths every year worldwide; a number which is set to grow exponentially to 10 million by 2050; a death toll higher than all cancers combined.
Writer: Patrick Burton