Novartis to cease antibiotic R&D despite superbug threat


Novartis has quit research and development into antibiotics, becoming the latest pharma giant to stop work in this field.

The move is despite attempts by governments and other organisations across the world to find a new generation of antibiotics, as strains of bacteria resistant to older compounds are becoming more common.

Only this week the UK government pledged to give up to £10 million in funding for new ways to tackle the threat that could make common infectious diseases deadly - but this is a drop in the ocean compared with the billions of dollars that big pharma can invest in research.

Novartis plans to close its antibacterial and antiviral research programmes and will lay off 140 employees at its premises in California.

It will attempt to sell the licenses to any ongoing projects, such as for experimental antimicrobials in the early phases of research, to other pharma firms.

The announcement follows AstraZeneca, Roche, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Eli Lilly also ceasing their antibiotics research programmes in recent years.

Cost is cited as the main factor in the decisions, as developing new antibiotics is a relatively expensive process that does not attract the same profits as other medication and the drugs tend to be used as last-line treatments, used in small quantities.

The speed at which bacteria become resistant to antibiotics can mean that by the time a company has gone through the approvals process, it has little chance of recouping the cost of bringing it to market.

Superbugs are responsible for 700,000 deaths a year globally and it is feared that by 2050 they could kill an estimated 10 million people annually without intervention.

James Hynard, policy officer at the Wellcome Trust, which aims to improve health globally and supports scientists and researchers, commented on Novartis’s latest move on Twitter, saying, “Bad news – Novartis have joined the big pharma exodus from antibiotics, at a time when we desperately need new treatment options to counter the rise of drug-resistant infections.

“Governments and industry need to make progress on incentives to keep pharma and investors in the [antibiotics] space, but any incentives should be structured to ensure access and stewardship, and an appropriate risk-reward balance between public and private sector.”

Novartis said in a statement: “We announced to our associates the decision to exit antibacterial and antiviral research. While the science for these programmes is compelling, we have decided to prioritise our resources in other areas where we believe we are better positioned to develop innovative medicines that will have a positive impact for patients."

“The need for these types of medicines is clear and to maximise the chances that these programmes will one day help patients we are actively engaged in out-licensing discussions with companies focused on developing medicines in these areas.”