By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - A global fund should be created to speed development of much-needed new antibiotics to counter the growing threat of drug-resistant superbugs, a British-government backed review said on Thursday.
The review, headed by the leading economist and former Goldman Sachs chief Jim O'Neill, said far too little is currently invested in research that could lead to new drugs to fight drug-resistant bacterial and viral infections.
"A lot of innovative thinking is happening in infectious disease research at the moment. These bright ideas need to be developed," the report said. "But lack of funding means that while people, machines and laboratories are ready to tackle the next challenges, they are unable to do so."
The problem of infectious bugs becoming drug-resistant has been a feature of medicine since the discovery of the first antibiotic, penicillin, in 1928. But it has grown in recent years as bugs resistant to multiple drugs have developed and drugmakers have cut back investment in this field.
The World Health Organization has warned that unless something drastic is done, a post-antibiotic era, where basic healthcare becomes life-threatening due to risk of infection during routine operations, could arrive this century.
O'Neill, who was asked last year by British Prime Minister David Cameron to take a global economist's view of the issue, said in his initial report that so-called anti-microbial resistance (AMR) could kill an extra 10 million people a year and cost up to $100 trillion by 2050 if the rampant global spread of superbugs is not halted.
In this latest report, O'Neill called on international funders, both philanthropic and governmental, to allocate money to a fund "to support blue sky science and incubate ideas that are more mature".
"New drugs take 10 to 15 years to come onto market, so the time for action is now," he said.
When it comes to research funding, the report said infectious diseases and the medical interventions needed to tackle them are an underfunded "poor relation" compared to chronic illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and dementia.
It said a targeted "innovation fund" could support the kind of research needed to pave the way for new drugs, for alternatives to antibiotics and for new testing technology that is vital to ensure the right drugs are used.
The fund could also "reverse the brain drain to research areas that are currently better-paid and held in higher academic esteem, such as cancer, diabetes and dementia," it said.
(Editing by Liisa Tuhkanen and Raissa Kasolowsky)