Britain is to lead the fight back against antibiotic-resistant superbugs. As David Pollard reports, the government has appointed economist Jim O'Neill to find ways to encourage pharmaceuticals to spend on something they currently don't see as lucrative.
We are, say experts, in a post-antibiotic age. It makes scary reading. In England, anti-biotics are prescribed in vast quantities every year. But it's thought most bacteria are resistant to them. No major new anti-biotic has been developed for over two decades. And twenty-five thousand lives are claimed, each year, by infections resistant to them, in Europe alone. Dame Sally Davies is the UK's chief medical officer. SOUNDBITE (English) UK CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER, DAME SALLY DAVIES, SAYING: ''If we don't sort this and get new anti-biotics, we will see the end of modern medicine as we know. Cancer therapies, routine operations like replacement hips or Caesarian sections, people dying young with infections in their hearts. Even, if we go back to the very old days, people dying of cuts.'' With that in mind, the UK prime minister has given ex-Goldman Sachs economist Jim O'Neill a new task. The man who coined the acronyms MINT and BRIC now has to find ways of making the big pharma companies invest in new drugs to fight infections. At one time, infections caused almost half of all deaths - until the advent of anti-biotics. But in recent decades the bugs they fight have been fighting back. The problem compounded by over-prescription. And the big pharmas' reluctance to plough money into drugs seen as low-cost and low margin. Industry journalist Kevin Grogan. SOUNDBITE (English) KEVIN GROGAN SENIOR NEWS EDITOR, PHARMATIMES, SAYING: ''It's all a question of the value of drugs. People are happy to pay thirty thousand for a cancer drug, but won't pay £100 for an anti-biotic that will save lives ... If it costs me a billion dollars to develop a drug, and you're going to give me 200 million back, there's no incentive for me.'' O'Neill will work independently of government - with freedom to approach the issues as he sees fit. He's due to make an initial report next year. Experts say we have one or two decades to deal with the problem. Otherwise, says the prime minister, we risk being cast back into the ''dark ages'' of medicine.