In a recent Time Magazine cover story, Brian Walsh highlights the growing risk of killer germs and superbugs such as bird flu H7N9 Ebola, Zika and MERS, across an increasingly interconnected and densely populated planet. He reports that “the number of new diseases per decade has increased nearly fourfold over the past 60 years, and since 1980, the number of outbreaks per year has more than tripled”. As the threat grows, our efforts to prepare for the consequences are clearly falling short.
The dangers of killer germs and superbugs are not limited to bird flu in China, Ebola in West Africa, Zika in South America and MERS in the Middle East. The impact is being felt much closer to home as well. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in September 2016, a 70-year-old Nevada woman died from an infection that was “resistant to all available antimicrobial drugs”. Analysis of the superbug, Klebsiella pneumonia, established that it was resistant to all 26 antibiotics available in the United States, including the “drug of last resort”, colistin. The event is a frightening wake up call to the perils of what the CDC terms untreatable “nightmare bacteria”.
We are already at loss
Across the globe, scientists are acutely aware that we are losing the battle against pathogens and that our arsenal of antibiotics is nearly empty. Our response should be to expand the incentives that will encourage greater research into the treatments and cures we will need. Our response should be stronger intellectual property rights for the biopharmaceutical sector to attract the best of the best to take on these challenges. Tragically, we have stumbled and we are ill-prepared for what lies ahead. The reality is that “microbes evolve about 40 million times as fast as humans do, and we are losing ground”. Our short-sighted approach is nothing new, but the tide may be turning. It has been 30 years since a new class of antibiotics was discovered, for many reasons.
The graphic depicts the development of antibiotics over the past century, with a notable “discovery void” dating from the 1980s. It has been a combination of scientific as well as commercial barriers that have impeded antibiotic development. Instead of acknowledging that the incentives provided by intellectual property rights have provided humanity with an impressive selection of treatments and cures, efforts are underway in the WHO to weaken those protections, threatening the ability of health technology innovators to bring new products to patients. Late last year, the United Nations High-Level Panel on Access to Medicines (HLP) released a deeply flawed and troubling report, making damaging recommendations that would ultimately undermine the laws and policies that foster biopharmaceutical innovation.
IPR may be our Last Hope
We must invest in innovation and safeguard the property rights that incentivize these discoveries. Short-sighted efforts to enervate existing intellectual property rights laws and policies will not only damage incentives to innovate, they may hand a victory to the superbugs. If we are to avoid these dire predictions, we must invest in what will save us. We must embrace and encourage the process of discovery and make sure that it is rewarding enough to attract the best and brightest minds.