David Cameron gets serious about antibiotics — too little too late?

David Cameron has announced a review into why so few antimicrobials have been introduced over recent years. This seems to be too little too late. The impending car crash in healthcare of death from minor surgeries and incidental infections looms over us all. I have seen patients in critical care die of infections because we literally had no drugs left to treat them with. The continued evolution of bugs – MRSA and others– against our best drugs has been a huge problem for some time, one that rightly makes headlines problems. But it is hard for a society to take a such a grave threat seriously until it reaches epidemic proportions – and by then, it is not an exaggeration to say, we could all be at risk.

I have heard unsubstantiated rumours that there is not a single new antibiotic in development. The problem is simple, antibiotics are not profitable. We have discovered all the ‘easy’ ones and further drugs will take a lot of research. It is expensive for drug companies to bring a drug to market, and during much of the 20 year patent a new antibiotic will be reserved as a last line of defence and will not create a lot of revenue. Eventually as it begins to be used a lot, it stops working as selection pressure becomes applied to the already drug resistant bacteria it is designed to eliminate. In short, drug companies seek profit not public health and new antibiotics don’t promise great profits.

Medicine has accommodated as much as it can in recent years with what’s called ‘antibiotic stewardship’ — that is, guidance on who gets which antibiotics and why from experts becoming commonplace, falling GP prescriptions and public health education on when antibiotics are not required. But it isn’t nearly enough. The government needs to take this problem more seriously — and tackle it with ever more urgency.

Steven Vates is currently a final year medical student at Warwick Medical School, and hopes to train in psychiatry after graduating in 2015. Prior to this he practised as a registered nurse in critical care.


  • 2trueblue

    Instead of trying to place the blame on Cameron, or previous PMs, what exactly have the medical profession contributed to the whole mix? The are at the coal face and we have known for some time that there is very little happening in development of new answers.

    • Mynydd

      The medical profession do not develop new drugs, they use them.

      • 2trueblue

        They are involved in trials, use, have knowledge which is shared. If you think they are not part of the mix, are involved, then think again.

  • Alex

    “The government needs to take this problem more seriously — and tackle it with ever more urgency.”
    Couldn’t agree more; if a company can’t expect to make money by developing a product that will prevent a major epidemic then plainly something has gone badly wrong.
    Could it be related to the growing concern that UK and EU (and US) over-regulation is killing the drugs industry by adding massively to costs and development timescales?

    • Charles

      In this case it’s more that the novel antibiotics are used as salvage therapy (i.e. a last line of resort) because there are so few options. That means that sales can be very low. A good example is Tygacil (from Wyeth, now Pfizer) which only make sales of about £200m per year – because it is used as a 4th line therapy. This compares to estimates of over £500-600m at the time it was launched.

  • Mynydd

    Mr Cameron is not serious about antibiotics, he his only serious about tomorrows headline. Expect no action.

    • arnoldo87

      I hope your cynicism is misdirected. Cameron seems to have a Blair like ability to articulate the really important issues.
      There are very few areas of worry that are more threatening than the antibiotics problem.
      I say give the man credit for raising it in the first place and judge him on results in a few years time.

      • Frank

        Arnold, where have you been living for the past 4 years? David Cameron has zero judgement. He only articulates what his staff tell him to articulate and then moves on to the next sound bite.
        I can remember this problem being articulated 40 years ago in connection with the arrival of large numbers of third world immigrants who were infected with untreatable TB. Not a lot has changed since, although the numbers of infected persons arriving in Britain has increased in leaps and bounds.

        • arnoldo87

          “He only articulates what his staff tell him to articulate and then moves on to the next sound bite.”
          In that case congratulations to his staff for changing the Tory Party into an entity that floating voters can again contemplate voting for.

          • Terry Field

            Nothing that happens – and thats the truth!

  • Blindsideflanker

    I remember this subject being brought up when Mrs T was PM , where the indiscriminate use of antibiotics in agriculture was cited as a grotesque waste of a valuable resource, nothing happened then , and I don’t believe much will happen now.

  • Charles

    “I have heard unsubstantiated rumours that there is not a single new
    antibiotic in development. The problem is simple, antibiotics are not
    profitable. We have discovered all the ‘easy’ ones and further drugs
    will take a lot of research.”

    Sorry, but that is garbage – as a moment’s research would have demonstrated.

    Try looking at Tetraphase, Cempra, Discuva, Trius, Remprex or Cubist. And that’s just off the top of my head.

    Here’s an article from *2011* talking about how the landscape in antibiotics is changing with much more emphasis on research.

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-17/drug-resistant-germs-lure-biotechs-to-lead-antibiotics-effort.html

  • suzy61

    I lived in Spain until recently. Here in Britain anti-biotics are prescription only whereas in Spain you can obtain them quite easily from your local chemist. Remind me…..what is the EU for?

  • Makroon

    Whatever the government says, the permanently disaffected lobbyists will mindlessly chant “too little, too late”. That’s another Balls soundbite isn’t it ?