Times Snaps Fingers: Presto! New Antibiotics Soon Appear

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Yesterday, Tuesday Nov. 20th, the New York Times published an editorial entitled "Another Very Scary Germ." The thrust of the piece was that more needs to be done, now, to get MRSA back under control. It was prompted by recent news showing that this highly-resistant and dangerous bug has been spreading outside of its usual haunts, hospitals and other healthcare facilities, to sicken and kill in the community. In fact, 2005 data indicated almost 95,000 of us contracted illness from MRSA, and over 18,000 died. That's quite a toll, especially considering that almost no one had heard of it until the recent publicity.

Part of the Times' editorial suggestions make good sense: educating physicians not to prescribe antibiotics unnecessarily; careful attention to personal hygiene and sanitary procedures; better hospital surveillance for this germ, with mandatory reporting; and screening of high-risk patients. Indeed, an organization headed by ACSH trustee Dr. Betsy McCaughey, the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths (RID), has been calling for these measures for some years now. The editorial, however, also noted that the pharmaceutical industry has not been producing new, powerful antibiotics for the past few years. The editors said the drug makers "need to pick up the pace of discovery."

But has not the Times been in the forefront of attacking the pharmaceutical industry over the years for a variety of real and imagined shortcomings? The writers there don't seem to understand -- or choose to ignore -- the inconvenient fact that drug manufacturers can't just reach into their drawers and pull out a new antibiotic, effective against MRSA, and safe to ingest. Drugs are not cars or CD players -- new packaging is not good enough. Even if a company succeeds in developing an effective new drug -- after a decade of studies and a billion-dollar investment -- it still must get the OK from the FDA to go to market, a highly unpredictable process these days. The ever-cautious FDA now asks not only if a drug is "safe" but if it is more effective than any similar, older drugs in the same class. These hurdles, plus the threat of litigation if any unexpected, unforeseen (often unforeseeable) side-effects occur, explain why there has been a paucity of new antibiotics -- and of any new drugs over the past two years. And when the attacks on Big Pharma occur, you can count on the New York Times to be in the lead.

But never mind that -- we need new antibiotics against MRSA, and new vaccines, and new anti-cancer drugs -- so, drug -makers, pick up the pace! If the Times says it, it must be done.

Gilbert Ross, M.D., is Executive and Medical Director of the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH.org, HealthFactsAndFears.com).