Public Development Of Antibiotics – Sure, Why Not?

There’s a rather fun call for the public sector to investigate antibiotics. As a result of market failure. To which the answer is, sure, why not, go for it. As long, that is, as the public sector is just one player in that market. So that we can see whether the public sector is actually better at it.

The basic analysis here is that antibiotic research doesn’t make a profit and that this is just and righteous. For there is that antibiotic resistance to think of. Therefore we want to use the new ones sparingly, – actually, not at all – until we really, really, have to. This doesn’t then match over the needs of someone who has just spent a $1 billion to get the thing licensed and only has a decade of patent life to gain that back.

So, yes, we’ve a problem here. To which the public funding of antibiotic research and development would be an entirely useful solution. Except and but:

As these precedents show, public ownership of international antibiotic R&D could be an effective response to the global antibiotic resistance emergency. As recently proposed by economist Lord Jim O’Neill, a quick way out of the current crisis might be to buy out remaining industry R&D – including relevant experts and patented compounds in industry archives.

Ah, no. We don’t want the public sector to now be the monopolist developer. We want the public sector to be an additional developer.

Quite apart from anything else, we want to see that the public sector is doing this better than the private. That is, we still want that market competition even if we’ve now got a public player in those markets.

The analysis of the problem is fine, the suggestion is useful, but a public monopoly isn’t the cure. It’s to have the public provider and see how well it does.

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David
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David

I thought that the problem was that because as new antibiotics are not used very much – because people are worried about antibiotic resistance so therefore there is no money in making one.
The solution I would have thought would be to have a prize for getting approval for a new antibiotic under certain conditions – i.e sold cheaper or developed in the UK.
Obviously there would be a free rider problem.

John B
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John B

Another global emergency. We do seem to be getting a lot of them just now. The alleged ‘antibiotic resistance emergency’ has been in full swing since the 1970s for those of us old enough and with a functioning memory – but here we still are, not all dying of gangrene, septicæmia or TB. There are a variety of antibiotics so if one does not work, plenty more to try. A particular bacterium is not resistant to all of them. Bacteria replicate and mutate rapidly, so those which are not affected by an antibiotic survive and multiply so anyone infected does… Read more »

Michael van der Riet
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Michael van der Riet

John B how to freak out a biologist: “I didn’t finish my course of antibiotics because I was feeling better, so I gave them to a friend who’s coming down with something.”

Michael van der Riet
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Michael van der Riet

As I wrote on Bjorn Lomborg’s page, “researchanddevelopment” is usually spoken of as one word, indivisible and monolithic. Quangos like universities do lots of basic research that would be too risky an investment for a corporate, because much of this research only proves that something doesn’t work. Steve Jobs took basic research and developed it into a product. So yes I do see a very important role for public research.