Current Antibiotic Methods May Have Bugs

Health researchers recently discovered a gene some humans carry that is resistant to the carbapenem, a family of antibiotics used to treat multidrug-resistant bacteria. This is particularly troublesome because if this set of genes aligns with people who contract this type of bacteria, there could be a predicament similar to the 19th century, when antibiotics weren’t available to help people fight infections.1

Bacteria are constantly evolving, and therefore antibiotics must do so as well. A factor that exacerbates the problem is the overprescribing of antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that between 20 and 50 percent of all antibiotic prescriptions are either inappropriate or unnecessary.2 A recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association claimed that one-third of antibiotics prescribed through physicians’ offices are inappropriate or unnecessary.3

With few antibiotics in development, and doctors and patients continuing to overuse the drugs, the situation is becoming critical. So much so that one bioethicist has recommended two solutions: (1) require hospitals and outpatient clinics to join a government program that tracks antibiotic use, and (2) governments of various developed countries should offer $2 billion in prize money for the development of new antibiotics.4

The first solution involves a volunteer CDC-run antibiotic stewardship program in which physicians provide the information and receive back regular reports that aggregate their antibiotic prescription use with a qualitative analysis of the resistance they’re likely developing as a result.5

The second issue is more controversial. New drugs are currently developed based on a marketplace model, meaning that market forces determine what types of medications drug companies develop. It takes between $500 million and $1 billion for a pharmaceutical company to bring a drug to market, but an antibiotic may earn only $5,000 while a cancer drug may earn $100,000 or $150,000 — so it’s easy to see that antibiotics do not offer a good a return on their investment.6 That’s why today there are only 37 antibiotics under development compared to 836 cancer drugs.7Perhaps a $2 billion grant would help incentivize drug makers to develop more antibiotics, with a built-in profit margin and the possibility of future sales profits.

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1Knowledge@Wharton. July 8, 2016. “New Approaches to Winning the Fight Against Superbugs” Accessed Aug. 25, 2016.
3Lena H. Sun. The Washington Post. May 3, 2016. “1 in 3 antibiotics prescribed in U.S. are unnecessary, major study finds” Accessed Sept. 2, 2016.
4Knowledge@Wharton. July 8, 2016. “New Approaches to Winning the Fight Against Superbugs” Accessed Aug. 25, 2016.

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