UPDATED: Amid the 'superbug' crisis, a Big Pharma-backed fund scores a meager raise for antibiotics R&D. Is $140M nearly enough?
Years after Big Pharma abandoned the antibiotics space, a small syndicate has raised $140 million to address the looming threat of antimicrobial resistance — but is it too little, too late?
Back in July, more than 20 biotechs — including heavyweight players Pfizer, Eli Lilly, Novo Nordisk, Boehringer Ingelheim, Bayer Pharmaceuticals, Merck KGaA and the American Merck — banded together to help launch the AMR Action Fund. With an initial $1 billion, the fund set out to bring two to four new antibiotics to patients by 2030.
On Thursday, the fund closed on another $140 million raise from the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation, the European Investment Bank and the Wellcome Trust — a figure that pales in comparison to the tens of billions of VC dollars spent in oncology over the last decade.
“Systemic market failure has left antibiotic innovation starved of financing, meaning potentially lifesaving products are unable to make it to the patients who need them,” Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement, adding that the fund is only “part of the solution.”
“The AMR Action Fund is buying time for the antibiotic pipeline. It is now up to governments to use this time wisely and take decisive action to fix the market,” Farrar added.
It’s estimated that the rise of superbugs takes 700,000 lives every year, according to the AMR Fund, which was launched with the help of the WHO and the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations. By 2050, experts guess antimicrobial resistance could lead to as many as 10 million deaths per year.
But despite the rising threat, Big Pharma has retreated from the risky field, fraught with cheap generics and poor financial returns. Many antibiotics fail in development, while others “wither on the vine” due to a lack of available funding. And the ones that do get approved are often used sparingly to preserve effectiveness and slow the development of further resistance.
Novartis — one of the many biotechs chipping into the AMR Fund — joined the parade of big pharmas exiting the field two years ago when it culled its antibacterial and antiviral research efforts. AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Allergan had already abandoned their own programs, which, followed by a slew of bankruptcies, left few others in pursuit of a solution to antimicrobial resistance.
“Never has the threat of antimicrobial resistance been more immediate and the need for solutions more urgent,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said in a January 2020 statement.
The AMR Fund isn’t the only initiative looking to spur new development in the space. CARB-X launched in 2016, with the goal of pumping up to $480 million into early projects through 2022. Since its launch, CARB-X has announced 78 awards worth more than $284.4 million, not counting potential milestones.
“We need innovative solutions to avert the looming health crisis posed by AMR, which threatens to make even common medical procedures potentially deadly,” said Christoph Boehringer, chairman of the Boehringer Ingelheim Foundation which contributed $50 million to the cause.
Isaac Stoner, CEO at Octagon Therapeutics, said the fundraising efforts are “really interesting, but I have unfortunately become a pessimist.” He added:
This seems like a similar mechanism to the Novo REPAIR fund and CARB-X. It’s a nice idea, but still a very small amount of money and doesn’t fix the actual problem. As they describe themselves, this is “buying time” for real action. As COVID vaccine development has shown, if governments sign purchase contracts around large volumes of these products at guaranteed price points, that can really help to stimulate development. But these push incentives are a bridge to nowhere, as long as the market opportunity is coupled to utilization.
Ankit Mahadevia, founder and CEO of Spero Therapeutics, said it’s “helpful to see the commitment to finding better solutions for infections.”
“Our responsibility as biotechs is to find scientifically innovative medicines that meet true unmet needs in sustainable markets and the fund can help us in that mission,” he continued.
Comparing the threat to the novel coronavirus, which was “practically unknown” until last year, the AMR Fund said antimicrobial resistance is “a threat we know, and we must take collective action now.”