Markman Capital Insight

Report: new superbugs could kill millions

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"Superbugs," or antibiotic-resistant bacteria, are on track to kill one person every three seconds and set medicine back to the Dark Ages by 2050, according to a new report.

In many ways we have been spoiled. Since the accidental invention of penicillin in 1928 we humans have felt largely immune to infection. We get shots or take pills like candy at the first sign something might be wrong -- so much so that more than 50% of antibioticsprescribed in the United States are completely unnecessary. And we feed the cure-all pills to livestock too. In fact, about 70% of antibiotics sold in the US end up in our food supply.

It really doesn’t make sense to feed antibiotics to animals critical to the human microbiome but they seemed to get on alright and grow faster as a result, so no harm, no foul. Or so we thought. It turns out our own abuse of antibiotics and consumption through the food we eat has led to several deadly strains of bacteria now resistant to antibiotics.

Medical researchers fear the worse because these superbugs are rampant in hospitals and underinvestment in new antibiotics means we don’t have easy cures. Common surgeries like hip replacements, c-sections and even childbirth can thus become life threatening. Cancer chemotherapies are a complete non-starter because they inhibit the immune system anyway. An infected patient can easily spread the killer superbug to other patients and hospital staff.

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You might think the seriousness of the threat would incentivize pharmaceutical companies. That hasn’t really happened. No new classes of antibiotics have been developed since the 1950’s because development is notoriously difficult and expensive. Worse, the pay-off for new drugs is small compared to the prices chronic infection drugs fetch. So the drugs companies have sat on the sidelines while academics pushed forward with research.

There is some hope though. This past weekend, a new report backed by research from consulting firms KPMG and RAND Europe sets out the problem in stark terms and prescribes a realistic route to resolution. The highlight is a ten point plan including reduced antibiotic use for humans and animals, improved sanitation and cleanliness standards for hospitals, a massive global awareness program, increased surveillance of the spread of drug resistant bacteria, and the promotion of vaccines and incentives for new tests and antibiotic drugs. At an estimated cost of $40 billion over ten years, the program is a bargain compared to the projected $100 trillion burden to the global economy the study predicts if no action is taken.

The antibiotic space, once the domain of a single long-term player, AstraZeneca (AZN), has seen a flurry of acquisitions the past two years. Pharmaceutical firms are trying bulk up for the superbug battle sweepstakes. Last year Merck (MRK) shelled out $8.3 billion for Cubist Pharmaceuticals. Nestle, a Swiss food conglomerate is playing in the space in two important ways. It’s quietly building a healthy foods division focused on probiotics, or beneficial bacteria. Last year that division had $2.1 billion in sales and is forecasting a fivefold increase by 2020. To play more directly Nestle bought Seres Therapeutics in January, a Boston based biotechnology firm engaged in microbiome-based therapeutics. And Roche, the French pharmaceutical concern, acquired GeneWave in 2015, a company that makes tests for antibiotic resistant bacteria.

Superbugs are real, they’re scary and they have the potential to be apocalyptic, killing 10 million people per year by 2050. That’s more than cancer. Like most big threats, humans are being called to action. That action will lead to many lucrative investments. I'm on the lookout.

About Jon Markman:

A pioneer in the development of stock-rating systems and screening software, Jon Markman is co-inventor on two Microsoft patents and author of the bestselling books The New Day Trader Advantage, Swing Trading and Online Investing, as well as the annotated edition of Reminiscences of a Stock Operator.  He was portfolio manager and senior investment strategist at a multi-strategy hedge fund from 2002 to 2005; managing editor and columnist at CNBC on MSN Money from 1997 to 2002; and an editor, investments columnist and investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times from 1984 to 1997.

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