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Incentives For Drug Makers To Develop New Antibiotics

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Tax breaks and patent extensions are being considered to spur development of new antibiotics
Tax breaks and patent extensions are being considered to spur development of new antibiotics

Now, with the supply of new antibiotics "distressingly low," according to FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, and with widespread resistance to antibiotics becoming an even greater threat, the government is considering financial incentives, like tax breaks and patent extensions, to drugmakers to get them to amp up production of these much-needed medications, The New York Times reports.

Andrew Pollack lays out some of the proposals being considered in his Times piece this weekend.

The world’s weakening arsenal against “superbugs” has prompted scientists to warn that everyday infections could again become a major cause of death just as they were before the advent of penicillin around 1940.

“For these infections, we’re back to dancing around a bubbling cauldron while rubbing two chicken bones together,” said Dr. Brad Spellberg, an infectious disease specialist at Harbor-U.C.L.A. Medical Center in Torrance, Calif.

For example, scientists have become alarmed by the spread from India of a newly discovered mutation called NDM-1, which renders certain germs like E. coli invulnerable to nearly all modern antibiotics. About 100,000 Americans a year are killed by infections acquired in hospitals, many resistant to multiple antibiotics. Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, the best known superbug, now kills more Americans each year than AIDS.

While the notion of directly subsidizing drug companies may be politically unpopular in many quarters, proponents say it is necessary to bridge the gap between the high value that new antibiotics have for society and the low returns they provide to drug companies.

“There is a market failure,” said Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat and the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who said he was considering introducing legislation. “We need to look at ways to spur development of this market.”

Barry Eisenstein, a senior vice-president at Lexington-based Cubist Pharmaceuticals, a maker of antibiotics tells The Times that one problem is that use of any new antibiotics will likely start "sparingly" to prevent resistance. "While that might be medically appropriate," the story says. "it reduces the ability of a drug company to recoup its investment."

This program aired on November 8, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Rachel Zimmerman Twitter Reporter
Rachel Zimmerman previously reported on health and the intersection of health and business for WBUR. She is working on a memoir about rebuilding her family after her husband’s suicide.