Universities ‘should lead fight against antimicrobial resistance’

Economist Lord Jim O'Neill warns political ‘nonsense’ a barrier to urgently-needed research

June 27, 2019
Jim O'Neill

A leading economist has urged universities to take the initiative in the fight against antimicrobial resistance, amid warnings that incurable infections are set to kill 10 million people per year by 2050.

Lord O’Neill, honorary professor of economics at the University of Manchester and author of the 2016 UK government review of antimicrobial resistance, told the Times Higher Education Young Universities Summit that political “nonsense” meant global leaders were too slow to address the problem.

Antimicrobial resistance is already responsible for 700,000 deaths each year globally, but could soon overtake cancer as the biggest cause of death without prompt and effective investment in research, he said.

“We think of [antibiotics] as sweets, so we abuse them which adds to the speed of resistance,” Lord O’Neill explained. “If we carry on the track we are on…we could go back to a situation that is like it was before we had penicillin – no antibiotics will work.”

Lord O’Neill added that one of his “proudest achievements” had been getting the subject included on the agenda at the G20 summit in Japan on 28 June, but expressed fears that more immediate political challenges – including Brexit – would take precedence and result in antimicrobial resistance being ignored.

“I worry that because of the never-ending nonsense of global governance, this is slipping off the agenda, made more complicated by the ridiculous nonsense going on in UK politics in the past three years,” he told attendees at the University of Surrey

This, Lord O’Neill said, provided an “incentive” for academic leaders to “think seriously about collaborating regularly on the topic”.

“Even in the world of scientific research, very little research is being done on infectious diseases, particularly with regards to AMR, partly because there’s no ultimate financial reward for those who might support the finance and grab of academic research,” he said. Three years on since the publication of his government review, he said “universities, particularly in the UK” had seen “some improvements”, with some, including Surrey, securing funds to open lines of research into antimicrobial resistance.

But investment from industry was limited on account of the low returns, Lord O’Neill warned, resulting in a funding gap that governments needed to address. He gave the example of Achaogen, one of the few biotech companies to have made progress on developing new antibiotic drugs, which filed for bankruptcy this year.

“If that kind of thing carries on, indirectly I suspect the funding to universities will start to slow,” Lord O’Neill said. If big pharmaceutical companies could not be encouraged to increase investment, he said, “maybe we have to do something really dramatic and actually take it away from profit-maximising entities…and what would be better than forcing new universities around the world to come together to formulate how to do that”.

“The very small number of the sharpest academic brains are already thinking about this problem – if there is not enough said by the G20…you will start to see some of them saying we need to do something much more radical,” he predicted.

rachael.pells@timeshighereducation.com

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