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New antibiotics desperately needed as penicillin becomes obsolete

Penicillin is becoming obsolete and governments should take urgent action to spur investment in the discovery of new antibiotics to tackle the growing numbers of people dying from infections, according to a new report from the London School of Economics and Political Science.  

Bacterial diseases are becoming increasingly virulent and resistant to currently available antibiotics and are the second-leading cause of death worldwide. Within the EU, it is estimated that 2 million patients every year catch hospital-acquired infections, of which 175,000 die.  

Photograph of antibiotic tabletsAccording to the report, Policies and incentives for promoting innovation in antibiotic research, penicillin is becoming obsolete in France, Spain and Romania, partly due to over-prescription. Many doctors misdiagnose viral infections as bacterial infections because testing takes too long and because of a mounting tendency for litigation by patients.  

The report, commissioned by the Swedish government, calls for a coordinated strategy of major reforms across Europe to avert a 'potential health crisis.' This includes support for the development of cost-effective rapid diagnostic tests that are quick and easy to use. It also calls for a major review of the financial, legal and clinical issues surrounding antibiotics to discourage over-prescribing.  

The report highlights the fact that research into new antibiotics is not an attractive financial investment because of their potentially short clinical lifespan due to the rapid development of resistance. There is also a lack of awareness of how cost-effective antibiotics are in reducing mortality. This means that the price paid by public health providers is relatively low compared to some cancer drugs, which are very expensive but which offer only a few weeks or months of additional life.  

The report recommends major EU investment, such as risk-sharing finance facilities and advanced market commitments, to encourage research and development of new antibiotics. It is likely to pave the way for a European Union Council decision on antibiotics development.  

Photograph of Professor Elias MossialosElias Mossialos, Professor of Health Policy at LSE who led the research, called for governments to take immediate action, saying:  'The development of penicillin and other antibiotics in the mid-20th century prompted public health leaders to declare that the end of infectious diseases was approaching. But the rise of MRSA and other resistant infections is having a devastating effect, with increased spread of disease and risk of mortality, as well as longer hospital stays and higher treatment costs.  

'This is one of the most pressing public health issues in the developed world, yet very little is being done about it. Governments must take immediate action to preserve the effective life of existing antibiotics and strengthen incentives for the research and development of new antibiotics.' 

Goran Hagglund, Sweden's Minister for Health and Social Affairs, said: 'This is an outstanding contribution to the debate on a major health threat.'  

Professor Otto Cars, Director of the Swedish Strategic Programme Against Antibiotic Resistance, said: 'I am convinced that this pioneering report will have a marked influence on future development in the field.'  

Policies and incentives for promoting innovation in antibiotic research|  [PDF]



The report was commissioned by the Swedish EU Presidency and will be presented for the first time at an international conference in Stockholm on Thursday September 17.  

Elias Mossialos led the research in collaboration with Chantal Morel, Suzanne Edwards, Julia Berenson, Marin Gemmill-Toyama and David Brogan, all of LSE Health.  

To interview Elias Mossialos, please call +44 791 863 5931 or call Joanna Bale at LSE Press on +44 7831 609 679