As COVID-19 swept around the world, early reports showed half the people dying from the virus had developed secondary bacterial infections—many of them caused by “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics.

It is estimated that superbugs are killing some 33,000 people per year in the EU and more than 700,000 people worldwide. Recently, a prominent report estimated some 10 million deaths each year by 2050.

Yet the problem is vastly bigger than that. Antibiotics underpin much of modern medicine, enabling doctors to safely perform organ transplants, chemotherapy, major surgeries, and care for babies born prematurely. If superbugs proliferate, it puts the care of tens of millions in jeopardy.

This looming public threat requires new treatments—the kind of innovation the pharmaceutical industry has generated in response to COVID-19. Just six months after the pandemic began, the industry is testing 400 unique therapies in more than 1,200 clinical trials. Yet there are only 41 new antibiotic therapies currently in clinical trials.

Why such a contrast? Because the current financing model for medicines innovation makes developing new antibiotics to meet the problem unsustainable. It is estimated that new antimicrobial resistance (AMR) costs the EU €1.5 billion per year in healthcare costs and productivity losses. As for the industry, globally, it requires more than €1.9 billion of investment in scientific research and careful human trials to bring a new medicine to patients. The value of the medicine is realised in its eventual application.

But a new antibiotic would be like a fire extinguisher—something you put on the wall but hope to never use. It’s hard to offset €1.9 billion in development costs with a volume of sales that, everyone hopes, remains close to zero.

Need for Innovation and Action

To save a collapsing antibiotics pipeline, 20 leading pharmaceutical companies are joining forces to invest US$1 billion to create the AMR Action Fund. The aim is to bridge the gap between the need for AMR readiness and the financial reality of preparing for it. We here at Lilly are proud to be part of this effort, investing US$100 million to help bring two to four new antibiotics to patients by the end of the decade. On top of important financial support, our involvement in the Action Fund will provide much-needed technical support to biotech companies who are developing novel antibiotics.

The looming AMR crisis cannot be addressed with industry investment alone. Ultimately the AMR Action Fund is about providing governments with the time to make the necessary policy reforms to enable a sustainable antibiotic pipeline. We need to act together to rebuild the pipeline and ensure promising innovation in antibiotics is not lost.

The good news is governments and policymakers have long recognized the problem of AMR and tried to help. They have created special funding for antibiotic research and development. They have given accelerated regulatory reviews to new antibiotics. However, as the high number of COVID-19-related deaths from secondary infections makes clear, it has not been enough.

Just as pharmaceutical companies and governments have come together to find scientific breakthroughs to beat this pandemic, we need that same public-private partnership to prevent the next one.