News Feature | January 29, 2014

Are Drug Companies Returning To Research And Development?

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By Marcus Johnson

For years, the medical community has claimed that pharmaceutical companies had abandoned efforts in research and development of new antibiotic drugs. Indeed, the statistics seem to support that notion. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports a steady drop in approvals for new antibacterial drugs each year, from almost 20 in 1984 to nearly none in 2012.

The medical community claims that this is an immoral practice—that drug companies are leaving patients in the dark because bacterial drugs aren’t profitable in the long term. After the infamous closing of their antibiotic research facility in 2011, Charles Knirsch, Pfizer Vice President of Clinical Research said, “We were not having success developing novel approaches for difficult-to-treat bacterial infections. After a great deal of consideration, we decided that enhancing our focus on infection prevention would represent a more prudent return on investment.”

Antibiotics are not nearly as profitable today as other sectors in the industry, such as oncology, because most antibiotics are only taken for a one to two week period. But US and EU regulators are working with drug companies to help lower regulatory roadblocks for antibiotic production, and some have even suggested higher end prices for antibiotic drugs. Western governments are concerned because bacterial infections and diseases still kill over 50,000 people per year, while bacteria are growing increasingly resistant to the antibiotic drugs already on the market.  

"Antibiotics are never going to be huge blockbusters," one pharmaceutical executive says. "And yet the short answer is, we need these drugs. I don't think big pharma can call themselves good corporate citizens without them."