Why Haven’t Pharmaceutical Companies Kept Up With Antibiotic Research and Development?

antibioticsThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report at least two million United States citizens are infected with bacteria that are resistant to antibiotic treatment each year. Out of these two million people, 23,000 end up dying. With so many deaths reported, why have the pharmaceutic companies declined or in some cases completely stopped their development of antibiotics? There is obviously a need and demand for stronger antibiotics. Why then have only a handful of antibiotics been released to the public in the last four years?

The problem lies in the cost of making the drugs. On average it takes approximately 12 long years to develop a new antibiotic and get it approved by the FDA. The cost to develop the new drug is estimated to be around $359 million. That is a hefty debt to pay off before even seeing a return on the investment. Drug makers have to project how they can make a significant profit to entice investors to fund their drug development process.

Antibiotics are not as lucrative dollar-wise as other drugs are that treat chronic diseases like diabetes and arthritis. Antibiotics are essentially only used once to treat and cure a bacterial infection. On the other hand, people with chronic diseases will need repeat prescriptions of the same drug to help them cope with their disease for the rest of their lives. The more repeat prescriptions of a drug the more money is generated for the pharmaceutical companies, which is exactly the reason for the decline of antibiotic research in favor of these other drug research initiatives.

In 2002, Eli Lilly & Co. abandoned antibiotic research to focus on chronic illnesses. Pfizer, Inc. and Johnson & Johnson followed suit by closing down their antibiotic research facilities in 2011. But recently there has been a shift of interest to once again increase antibiotic development. With more Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections being reported and no way to treat these infections, the public is becoming alarmed. The World Health Organization warns that the number of deaths linked with bacterial infections will drastically climb from $50,000 (combining stats from the U.S and Europe) to significantly higher numbers if nothing is done to combat these resistant bacteria.

The U.S. government and European Union are now loosening their lengthy regulation process for the pharmaceutic companies to help expedite the rush to get new antibiotics available on the market. The U.S. government recently granted GlaxoSmithKline $200 million in funding to develop new antibiotics and the European Union has increased their antibiotic research funding to the universities.

This is good news as it is becoming increasingly hard for hospitals to fight off MRSA infections. People today are overusing antibiotics and as a result the bacteria is able to build resistance against the antibiotics by mutating. Even if people are only using antibiotics when absolutely needed, they could be consuming food that is injected with antibiotics. Unbeknownst to most, farmers for nearly a half a century have been injecting their livestock with antibiotics. The government unfortunately does not monitor this as closely as it should. These two contributing factors are now forcing our government and Europe to prioritize antibiotic research over other health initiatives. Hopefully with public outcry and government backing, the big pharmaceutical companies will be persuaded into to being good Samaritans and once more develop the desperately needed antibiotics.



“Antibiotic / Antimicrobial Resistance.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. August 6, 2014. Accessed November 30, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/drugresistance/.


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