Biotech and Pharma

Global antibiotics threat: What’s big pharma doing?


The World Health Organisation (WHO)'s headline-hitting warning about the threat of germs becoming resistant to antibiotics has led to questions about what pharmaceutical companies have been doing to fight this trend.

"Without urgent, coordinated action by many stakeholders, the world is headed for a post-antibiotic era, in which common infections and minor injuries which have been treatable for decades can once again kill," warned Dr Keiji Fukuda, WHO's assistant director general for health security, on Wednesday.

PASIEKA | Science Photo Library | Getty Images

There are very few companies still carrying out research into new antibiotics, partly because the market wasn't particularly valuable, and partly because there are already plenty of treatments available. Decisions in drug development are taken often decades in advance, and the scale of the problem of drug-resistant bacteria, and the evolution of so-called "superbugs," has only emerged in the past few years.

Read More Big Pharma Exit: Who's Fighting the Superbugs?

Antibiotics are usually only prescribed for a week or so, meaning that they are less lucrative than treatments for conditions -- like high cholesterol -- which have to be taken daily over a long period.

This kind of medicine seems to be difficult to research and develop, and to get approved by authorities. There have only been four new antibiotics approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in the past 16 years.

Merck, which was the first company to commercialize antibiotics when it made penicillin; GlaxoSmithKline; AstraZeneca; Roche, and others are still researching and planning new antibiotics, but there are still very few products close to being ready for patients.

"Tackling antibiotic resistance is a challenge we want to be part of solving but no one company can do this alone," a spokesman for GSK told CNBC.

Read More Superbugs are a 'war we can't win': Doctors

"Antibiotics research is one of the areas where we believe taking a more open-minded approach to sharing information and engaging in public-private partnerships will help to address some of the key barriers to the development of effective new medicines."

The future for research in this area is more likely to be along the lines of private-public partnerships, where pharmaceutical company research is backed with government money, such as the European Union-backed Innovative Medicines Initiative "NewDrugs4BadBugs," or the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority's partnerships.