The drugs don't work

Issue section: 
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The World Health Organisation (who) warned in April of the “devastating” potential impacts of antibiotic resistance. Antibiotics are used to kill bacteria. Before they were used widely in the 1950s, minor infections could become serious or even fatal.

They are also vital for surgery and for preventing people from getting ill when their ability to fight infection is weakened during cancer treatment.

But the more they are used, the more opportunity there is for bacteria to evolve into resistant “superbugs” like MRSA.

We need to keep developing new drugs that the bacteria haven’t encountered yet and aren’t resistant to. But no new classes of antibiotics have been discovered since 1987.

David Cameron has convened a team led Jim O’Neill, a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, to look into the possibility of governments paying the pharmaceutical industry to invest in antibiotic research.

Such research would be expensive and would not bring huge profits — especially as the potential for resistance means some drugs would need to be used sparingly.

Big pharmaceutical companies are only likely to invest if it is in their interests — for example if the situation gets so bad that the more profitable cancer drugs they produce become useless without the antibiotics to go with them.

The situation shows how fighting new diseases can’t be left to the market. The WHO is now arguing that antibiotics are so important they should be “global public goods” rather than “commercial goods to be sold”.

If we really wanted to stop the spread of antibiotic resistance we would need to nationalise the pharmaceutical industry and produce new medicines based on need, not profit.