The Urgent Need for New Antibiotics | Commentary

Posted September 19, 2014 at 10:00am

This week in a hearing titled “Examining Ways to Combat Antibiotic Resistance and Foster New Drug Development,” the House Energy and Commerce Committee will take a deep dive into the number one public health threat facing the U.S.

Each year, more than two million Americans are diagnosed with drug-resistant infections, and 23,000 die as a result. These dangerous superbugs have been found in every corner of the globe, and their unchecked spread threatens modern medicine as we know it. Not only could a common scrape become infected with a strain of drug-resistant bacteria and become untreatable and potentially deadly, but advanced procedures from chemotherapy to open heart surgery that rely on antibiotics to avoid infection could become too risky to even perform.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last fall released a landmark report with four core actions to stem the tide of antibiotic resistance: preventing infections and the spread of these superbugs, tracking and reporting infections, encouraging responsible use of antibiotics and spurring the development of new drugs to treat these infections.

The current level of urgency is because the same time the threat of drug-resistant infections skyrocketed, the development of new antibiotics has steadily decreased over the past twenty years. In 1990, there were nearly 20 pharmaceutical companies with large, active antibiotic research and development programs. Today only a select few companies continue researching and developing antibiotics, producing only a handful of new drugs to treat multi-drug resistant infections. The pipeline of new drugs has all but dried up because the outdated way in which our health system views these critical drugs prevents the market from working properly.

This spring, I joined Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., to introduce the bipartisan DISARM Act, which takes aim at the cause of the drug shortfall. Currently, Medicare only reimburses the everyday antibiotics like amoxicillin, penicillin and azithromycin that cost as little as $10 for a course of treatment. But the highly advanced, powerful antibiotics to treat superbugs often cost millions to develop and hundreds of dollars to prescribe in the hospital. When hospitals are paid only a fraction of the cost, it becomes less likely that drug will be used. Without a market for their drugs, companies are reluctant to make the big investment needed to develop high-powered antibiotics if they go unused in hospitals.

DISARM breaks this cycle by adding a new classification for a select group of high-powered antibiotics. The add-on payment means the use of these drugs will be reimbursed at cost, removing the barrier to their use. Creating this financial incentive is one critical step to turning the tide against superbugs and reinvigorating the pipeline of new drugs. Once we encourage the development of these miracle drugs, we must press forward, streamlining the clinical trial and approval process for new antibiotics to treat these dangerous infections. The bipartisan ADAPT Act, introduced by our colleagues Reps. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., and Gene Green, D-Texas, does just that, encouraging efficient approval of these drugs by eliminating regulatory hurdles and streamlining the approval process.

Just yesterday, the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology released their highly-anticipated report on antibiotic resistance, which calls for market incentives to lure companies back into the antibiotic development business. Reinvigorating the pipeline of new drugs is the crucial first step in combating antibiotic-resistant infections here in the U.S. and worldwide, and it needs to be at the heart of our strategic plan as a nation to tackle this serious emerging health threat.

Rep. Peter Roskam is a Republican from Illinois’ 6th District.