Playing the Long Game for Antibiotic R&D

Ankit Mahadevia, CEO, Spero Therapeutics

This week’s unveiling of the AMR Action Fund, a $1 billion public/private consortium anchored by 23 pharmaceutical companies to support the development and commercialization of antibiotics, is a welcome development in the fight against antimicrobial resistant infections.  

The money is important, but it was very encouraging to see the leadership of major pharmaceutical companies — Pfizer, Merck, and Eli Lilly, as examples among them — personally devoting their time and attention at an event shining the spotlight on infectious disease research. Increasing long-term commitment to the antibiotic business in a meaningful way starts with a renewed, full-throated endorsement from the corporate top.

This effort, if executed well, has the potential to accelerate the scope and scale of research and development that is critical to a long-term strategy against bacterial threats. A $1B investment is meaningful. Big Pharma and biotech can further this mission by supporting academic labs and early stage companies with creative ideas to cast a wider net, and support these projects for the long-term time horizons that are required.

We can also advocate together for a sustainable reimbursement solution so that antibiotic developers know they have a chance at being adequately rewarded for the risks they take for a wider range of applications than is currently feasible.

Taking a long-term view, here are a few humble thoughts on how best to apply this new momentum in service of a robust ecosystem:  

Continue to focus on sustainable, pragmatic approaches

The focus for antibacterial drug developers has to be on sustainable pipeline investments. While $1B is a lot of money, the late stage programs that this fund may support will need to stand on their own feet for us to get to where we want to be as an ecosystem.

Further, a scattered collection of small-scale bets that support work for a year or two will not be enough. We have to build viable businesses — i.e. companies that a range of investors see a reason to invest in for many years — as a starting point. It’s not enough to wait for Congress or private insurers or healthcare provider networks to create new rules for the road, so we can have a viable antibiotic R&D business model. 

I wrote at length here on Timmerman Report in April about the hallmarks of sustainable pipelines for this strategically important area of the biotech industry:

For the time being with the system we have, it’s our responsibility as antibiotic developers to do the following:

  1. Prioritize medicines that focus on diseases not addressed by competing generic or branded medicines,  
  2. Emphasize the medicines that can help the most people today and
  3. In the US, pursue reimbursement at least in part outside of the hospital fixed diagnosis-related group (DRG) payment system — under the current system, this means at least some outpatient focus for the pipeline.

Further, we should focus on developing our treatments with real urgency, and not allow ourselves to get bogged down in too much regulatory or operational complexity. In this case, speed enhances sustainability.

Sustainability can’t be emphasized enough. Bacteria continue to develop resistance. We need to have a steady, productive R&D engine to keep turning out potent new antibacterials if we want to keep up in the fight.  

Extend investment into earlier stage innovation

The focus of the AMR Fund is an area of great need – ensuring that medications with clinical merit have the resources to make their way to patients as they approach approval. There is an opportunity to take this commitment one step further and use the resources available to further accelerate the early stage research that makes future weapons against bacteria possible.   

Our colleagues at the CARB-X and REPAIR funds (Full Disclosure: Spero has received investment from both groups) are doing wonderful work advancing dozens of early stage technologies towards translation and early clinical development; there are still more good ideas than there are resources.

The scale and longer time horizon of Big Pharma would be an excellent complement to ensure we are advancing a diversity of good ideas to combat the broad and unpredictable threat of infection. We applaud our colleagues at Roche, Pfizer, and Merck that continue to make investments in this field whether in collaboration or in-house. There is an opportunity to build further on these efforts. 

Use the megaphone with one voice

Along with a commitment to the AMR Fund, these same pharma companies emphasized their commitment to advocating for the structural reform necessary to tackle a broader set of infectious threats. 

Now that a broader subset of our industry has more skin in the infectious disease game, there is a tremendous opportunity for a unified voice to catalyze a pragmatic solution to the (primarily US) reimbursement system that stifles antibacterial innovation. 

In years past, this has been seen a niche issue – someone else’s problem. Within our ecosystem to date, at times we have fragmented in our support of different initiatives in part depending on how they affected each of us individually. This new momentum, and the newly unified approach among Big Pharma players, is an opportunity to band together around a solution that has the best chance to make it to the finish line. 

Our view at Spero is that the best type of incentive is the one that passes; it is highly unlikely that every drug developer will be an equal beneficiary of any solution. Our hope is that this new, broader coalition can play the long game with a stronger, unified voice in Washington to make one of the several workable solutions under discussion into a reality.  

This era of COVID-19 and the AMR Fund have demonstrated the best that Pharma and biotech can offer society. This industry is willing and able to move quickly against the biggest challenges facing humanity. This AMR Action Fund is an extension of this; while COVID-19 was largely unforeseen, we can see the AMR issue coming. We should use this time wisely to get ahead of the curve.

The AMR Fund has given our collective mission new momentum; it is now up to us as drug developers to make the right pipeline choices, to execute, and continue to work together.

My thanks to the Spero team, Tim Hunt, Aleks Engel from the Novo REPAIR Fund, and Kevin Outterson from CARB-X for their thoughtful critiques, policy understanding, and commentary

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