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Pharmaceuticals

Japan and Western drugmakers launch $1bn fund against superbugs

Takeda, Glaxo and Amgen among 23 names uniting to fight antibiotic resistance

A magnified image of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria: drug-resistant diseases kill about 700,000 people a year across the world.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Drugmakers from Japan, the U.S. and Europe have announced a more than $1 billion fund to invest in startups developing treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections.

The 23 companies include Eisai, Shionogi, Daiichi Sankyo, Takeda Pharmaceutical and Chugai Pharmaceutical from Japan, as well as Amgen and Eli Lilly from the U.S. and Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline from Europe. The World Health Organization and the European Investment Bank also form part of the effort.

Around 700,000 people a year are said to die from drug-resistant infections. But developing antibiotics can be a financial crapshoot, given how quickly bacteria can mutate and render new treatments useless. Companies are now pooling resources to minimize risk.

The new AMR Action Fund, created in partnership with the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations, aims to make the first investment by March 2021 and bring two to four novel antibiotics to market within the decade.

Once a startup succeeds in creating a new drug, the fund will likely sell its shares in that company and distribute returns to members.

Developing antibiotics often resembles a cat-and-mouse game, with bacteria evolving resistance. Methicillin was developed after certain strains of staph bacteria became resistant to penicillin, only for methicillin resistance to also emerge. Individual companies can be hard-pressed to recoup development costs when treatments become ineffective too quickly.

Such drug-resistant strains can be particularly deadly for critical or older patients at hospitals. Without further action, annual deaths owing to antimicrobial resistance could reach 10 million by 2050, British policy institute Chatham House estimates.

Still, increased use of antibiotics can itself result in greater resistance by bacteria. Governments recommend that these drugs be taken only as needed, limiting the potential market for new antibiotics.

"In order for us to continue developing the drugs we need, we require cooperation from governments as well," said George Nakayama, president of the Japan Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association. Nakayama said the organization will push for public financial support for drugs that receive necessary approvals, or for governments to buy newly developed drugs as part of their reserves.

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