The world’s biggest drugs makers have pressed on in the fight against superbugs despite the pandemic, but millions of people in poorer countries, where the risk of drug-resistant infections is highest, are still missing out on key antibiotics.
A report from the Access to Medicine Foundation, an Amsterdam-based non-profit group, shows that only 54 of 166 medicines and vaccines assessed are covered by an access strategy to make them available to low- and middle-income countries.
Policies that can help poorer nations include tiered pricing, voluntary licensing agreements to boost supply, local manufacturing, technology transfers, public-private partnerships or donations.
Most of the 54 products are vaccines, anti-tuberculosis medicines, or antibiotics that the World Health Organization rates as a priority for greater access.
Jayasree Iyer, the foundation’s executive director, said: “Those facing the highest risk of infection and the highest rates of drug resistance have the hardest time getting the antibiotics they need.”
Annually an estimated 5.7 million people, mainly in low- and middle-income countries, die from treatable infectious diseases, owing to a lack of access to antibiotics.
“We’re happy to see some of the leaders, GSK and Pfizer, really taking steps in the last couple of years in the middle of a pandemic, but the gaps are huge in the research and development pipeline and in access plans,” said Iyer. “We’re on a bit of a slippery slope here.”
In a more positive development almost all new medicines in late-stage development (18 of 20) and all 11 late-stage vaccine projects are covered by plans to make them available to poorer countries, a big improvement on the finding of the foundation’s first report, in 2018, which showed only a handful had access plans.
The study also ranked 17 of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies that produce antibiotics and antifungals. While the R&D pipeline remains small given the scale of the threat from drug-resistant superbugs, the number of projects has risen from 77 to 92.
There are potential game-changers being tested by the companies in the report, including treatments for drug-resistant gonorrhoea, E coli and C difficile, bacteria that can infect the bowel and cause diarrhoea.
Pfizer’s newly acquired antifungal drug candidate fosmanogepix targets a fungus which is often multiple-drug resistant and which spreads in hospitals, causing infections that can be severe or deadly.