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Drug companies are not making progress against the spread of antibiotic resistance at a scale and speed great enough to tackle the global health threat posed by superbugs, a key benchmark analysis found on Tuesday.

The findings of a second Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR) Benchmark report showed that while a few pharmaceutical companies are expanding their efforts, change is not happening at the scale needed to radically impact the problem.

Antibiotic and antifungal resistance is estimated to kill 35,900 people in the United States alone each year. In the European Union and European Economic Area, data show that antimicrobial resistance accounts for at least 17 per cent of infections, and leads to 33,000 deaths each year.

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In India, drug resistance exceeds 70 per cent for many widespread bacteria, the AMR report said.

Compared to 2018, the pipeline of new drugs in development to combat bacterial and fungal infections remains small, with only 51 potential treatments in late-stage clinical trials, the 2020 report found.

And only a handful more clinical-stage antibiotics are being developed with integral plans to make them available to those who need them most, but only use them wisely and sparingly.

“This second benchmark provides a reality check,” said Jayasree Iyer, executive director of the Access to Medicine Foundation, which publishes the biennial AMR Benchmark report.

“The progress we see is being overshadowed by our increasing reliance on just a handful of companies.”

Drug resistance is driven by the misuse and overuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobials, which encourages bacteria to evolve to survive by finding new ways to beat the medicines.

But the low profitability of antibiotics means that only a dwindling number of pharmaceutical companies still invest in developing and manufacture them.

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The 2020 AMR Benchmark report said that since 2018, two more companies – Novartis and Sanofi – have retreated from new antibiotics research and development (R&D), while two more have filed for bankruptcy.

Tim Jinks, a specialist in drug-resistance at the Wellcome Trust global health charity, said the findings pointed to a “tipping point in the manufacturing of new antibiotics – with progress hanging by a thread.”

“Drug-resistant infections are one of the greatest global public health threats of our time,” he said. “The pace of change does not match the scale of the challenge.”

The report identified three drug companies – GSK, Entasis and Cipla – as leaders in antimicrobial R&D, and said they were “followed closely by a few strong performers,” including Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson.

Iyer warned, however, that the world should not take these firms’ commitment for granted.

The AMR Benchmark measures 30 companies with interests in the anti-infectives market, including multinational pharma companies, biotechnology firms and generics makers.

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