Worried about an impending public health crisis, government officials are considering offering financial incentives to the pharmaceutical industry, like tax breaks and patent extensions, to spur the development of vitally needed antibiotics.
While the proposals are still nascent, they have taken on more urgency as bacteria steadily become resistant to virtually all existing drugs at the same time that a considerable number of pharmaceutical giants have abandoned this field in search of more lucrative medicines. The number of new antibiotics in development is “distressingly low,” Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said at a news conference last month. 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.