UK Medical Director
Antimicrobial Resistance is a Growing Threat – The Time for Collaboration is Now
Medicine knows no boundaries. The discovery of penicillin is a prime example of how international collaboration can tackle some of the world’s most pressing public health challenges. During World War II, Oxford University researchers Howard Florey and Norman Heatley travelled to the United States on a mission in fervor of national security. For 13 years, attempts to harness the therapeutic potential of penicillin, a natural byproduct of Penicillin mold that inhibits the growth of deadly bacteria, had fallen short.
While Florey and Heatley had purified enough penicillin to show its lifesaving effect, they lacked the expertise and means to produce large quantities in England, where manufacturing facilities were producing other drugs needed for the war effort in Europe. In their pursuit of developing what would become the world’s first antibiotic, the pair met with leaders from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Rockefeller Foundation and subsequently several pharmaceutical companies with relevant manufacturing expertise.
Within two years, the herculean effort of multiple groups of scientists and engineers succeeded in establishing a process capable of manufacturing enough penicillin to treat the Allied soldiers. By 1946, they were able to mass produce penicillin, saving countless lives during and after the war. This transatlantic coalition was directly responsible for the plummet of deaths from common infectious diseases and the extension of lifespans by approximately eight years.
This new era, however, brought on a new set of challenges. Soon after penicillin’s discovery, Alexander Fleming already presaged the potential for antibiotic resistance. It wasn’t long after penicillin’s widespread introduction that the menace of resistance became a reality. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before scientists discovered new antibiotics that managed to keep medicine one step ahead of the resistant bacteria.
Over the past 30 years, the cadence of antibiotic innovation has slowed to a worrisome trickle. Today, the spectre of emerging resistance threatens to undermine the fabric of modern day medicine, jeopardizing health care gains to society such as organ transplantation, cancer chemotherapy and major surgery. Advances in science and genetics continue to yield progress in our understanding of infectious disease, but we must act quickly to remove the barriers standing in the way of developing new antibiotic therapies.
Partnership and collaboration is needed across industry, governments and academia. Scientists and engineers at MSD, known as Merck & Co., Inc., in the U.S. and Canada, made important contributions to the original collaboration that yielded the manufacturing process for penicillin. Nearly 80 years later, MSD remains one of only a few large pharmaceutical companies that continue to conduct antibiotic research and development, with collaboration as a central element of our strategy.
MSD is committed to participating constructively and responsibly to improving patient access to health care and encouraging innovation. In January 2016, the company joined more than 100 biopharmaceutical, generic and diagnostic companies in signing a declaration at the World Economic Forum that sets out bold commitments and calls on governments and industry to take joint action against antimicrobial resistance. In addition, MSD is working closely with industry peers and the U.K. government to design a new reimbursement model that seeks to ‘de-link’ company revenues from the total amount of antibiotic sold. The collective aim is to strengthen national level appropriate use strategies through smarter procurement methods whilst also ensuring that treatments remain affordable and accessible at the local level.
As history has proven, collaborations and partnerships will be critical in addressing the heath challenges of the future. It is essential that governments, industry, professional and civil society leaders work together to address this growing, global health threat. We must seize the moment and act to ensure a future where, even in the face of the ongoing microbial evolution, we can continue to enjoy the health and economic benefits of having effective antimicrobial treatments.