Finding New Antibiotics Isn’t Easy

by Patrick Appel

The past few decades have lacked major antibiotics discoveries. Derek Lowe shifts blame away from the drug companies:

There’s a persistent explanation for the state of antibiotic therapy that blames drug companies for supposedly walking away from the field. This has the cause and effect turned around. It’s true that some of them have given up working in the area (along with quite a few other areas), but they left because nothing was working. The companies that stayed the course have explored, in great detail and at great expense, the problem that nothing much is working. If there ever was a field of drug discovery where the low-hanging fruit has been picked clean, it is antibiotic research. You have to use binoculars to convince yourself that there’s any more fruit up there at all. I wish that weren’t so, very much. But it is. Bacteria are hard to kill.

How McArdle sees the issue:

Antibiotic resistance is one of the few policy areas where everyone agrees that something should be done. Well, maybe except for some nutcases in the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Even more rarely, it is an area where we all agree on what we would like to see done. Unfortunately, the folks who actually have to do it seem to have no idea how to make it happen.

And you know what? That’s not an accident. If we knew how to find lots of great new antibiotics, this wouldn’t be a policy argument; we’d have lots of great new antibiotics, and we wouldn’t need to worry about resistance. The very existence of a policy issue tells you that it is difficult to solve, either politically or technically.