Big pharma backs off superbug: Why 5 drugmakers bailed on antibiotic research

Several major pharmaceutical companies recently shut down their antibiotic and antiviral research projects, backing away from the growing threat of superbugs, which may kill more than 10 million people a year by 2050.

There are several reasons big pharma is retreating from its promise to find cures for these antibiotic-resistant infections — the most prominent being a lack of profit.

"The costs to develop a new antibiotic drug are no less expensive compared to development of drugs for other therapeutic areas, yet the commercial potential and return on investment for companies developing new antibiotics are significantly lower than drugs to treat chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease," Gary Disbrow, deputy director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, which is part of HHS, told Business Insider.

The lack of research poses a problem as at least 2 million people in the U.S. become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria per year and 23,000 people die each year as a result, according to the CDC.

Antibiotics were once a lucrative business, however, keeping up with the new antibiotic-resistant strains became taxing.

Since 2000, only 12 antibiotics have been approved. 

Here is a breakdown of five drugmakers who shut down their antibiotics research programs in recent years:

1. Novartis. The Swiss pharmaceutical giant announced in July its intent to shut down its antibacterial and antiviral research programs in California, citing a company shift toward prioritizing therapies for cancer treatments, neuroscience and ophthalmology. The drugmaker had 32 antimicrobial research and development projects in its pipeline in 2018.

2. AstraZeneca. In December 2016, AstraZeneca sold its small molecule antibiotics business to Pfizer, effectively pulling out of antibiotic drug development. The drugmaker considered the business a "nonpriority" area.

3. Sanofi. Sanofi shed its anti-infection research and development unit in June 2018, when it signed over the unit to Evotec AG. Sanofi wanted to focus on developing treatments for cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

4. Allergan. After a strategic review, Allergan decided in May 2018 to divest its $2 billion infectious disease unit to focus instead on its core businesses.

5. The Medicines Co. The drugmaker washed its hands of antibiotic research in November, when it sold off its infectious disease business to Melinta Therapeutics. The deal was expected to strengthen The Medicines Co.'s financial profile.

The pullback from big pharma revives concerns about a world in which routine infections become lethal as antibiotic resistance becomes increasingly problematic.

While several pharma giants have backed out of antibiotic research, Merck, Roche, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer all have active antibiotic research programs.

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