The global pharmaceutical industry is being called on to pay for a $2bn (£1.3bn) innovation fund to revitalise research into antibiotics. In return, there would be guaranteed payments to companies who produced vitally needed new antibiotics. There are currently very few new antibiotics in development amid a global spread of resistant bacteria.

The proposals are in a report by a UK government-appointed review team headed by economist Jim O’Neill. Mr O’Neill said: “We need to kick-start drug development to make sure the world has the drugs it needs, to treat infections and to enable modern medicine and surgery to continue as we know it.” He has previously warned that drug-resistant microbes could kill 10 million people a year worldwide by 2050 and cost $100 trillion in lost economic output.

Resistant strains of bacteria are spreading globally, threatening to make existing drugs ineffective. A global innovation fund of $2bn over five years would be used to boost funding for “blue-sky” research into drugs and diagnostics – with much of the money going to universities and small biotech companies. One promising area of research concerns so-called “resistance breakers”. These are compounds that work to boost the effectiveness of existing antibiotics – a far less costly approach than attempting to discover entirely new drugs.

Helperby Therapeutics, a spin-out company founded by Prof Anthony Coates, St George’s, University of London, has created a resistance breaker that acts against the superbug MRSA. The compound, known as HT61, will shortly go into clinical trials in India, where it is being developed under licence by Cadila Pharmaceuticals India. The review team said this kind of research could benefit from the innovation fund and could be the key to making existing drugs last longer.

Mr O’Neill said the big pharmaceutical companies should pay for the fund and look beyond short-term assessments of profit and loss. Formerly chief economist with the investment bank Goldman Sachs, Mr O’Neill drew parallels between the banking crisis and the looming catastrophe of a world where antibiotics no longer worked. He said big pharma needed to act with “enlightened self-interest” because “if it gets really bad, somebody is going to come gunning for these guys just how people came gunning for finance”.

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