The battle against super bugs—that growing class of virulent bacteria resistant to antibiotics that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates sickens 2 million people annually—results in tens of thousands of deaths each year. It also delivers a $20 billion toll in associated health care costs.
There aren’t many antibiotics in development to battle these super bugs right now. It takes money—lots of money—and often decades to shepherd a promising new drug through R&D to scale. Some pharmaceutical companies are no longer developing new antibiotics because the return on investment is greater in other areas of product development.
Maybe what we need is a new system, and some prize money
In a New York Times op-ed, Ezekiel J. Emanuel, an oncologist and vice provost at the University of Pennsylvania, says the development of antibiotics has “been glacial,” and that we need a new approach.
Here’s an excerpt from Emanuel’s op-ed suggesting governments come together to pool the money needed to develop more antibiotics, and then award the kitty to worthy contenders:
Let’s use prize money. What if the United States government — maybe in cooperation with the European Union and Japan — offered a $2 billion prize to the first five companies or academic centers that develop and get regulatory approval for a new class of antibiotics?
Awarding prize monies for innovation isn’t a novel idea; it’s already successfully spurring advances in everything from space travel to ocean health.
As the XPrize — a foundation that runs competitions to spur innovations for difficult problems that often aren’t being addressed — and others have demonstrated, prizes for lofty goals can catalyze the creation of hundreds of unexpected research teams with novel approaches to old challenges. The prestige, bragging rights and renewed sense of mission created by such a prize would alone make an investment in research worthwhile.
Because it costs at least $1 billion to develop a new drug, the prize money could provide a 100 percent return — even before sales. From the government perspective, such a prize would be highly efficient: no payment for research that fizzles. Researchers win only with an approved product. Even if they generated just one new antibiotic class per year, the $2-billion-per-year payment would be a reasonable investment for a problem that costs the health care system $20 billion per year.
Read this op-ed in its entirety in the New York Times.
Each week, we scour the news for the hottest stories on innovation. Our weekly feature, The Friday Think, highlights one we’ve found particularly fascinating.