NPR’s Ari Shapiro talks with Ezekiel Emanuel, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, about his opinion piece in the Washington Post that argues the cheap price of antibiotics has led to their overuse and has also discouraged drug companies from developing new antibiotics.

ARI SHAPIRO: Unless we shift course, superbugs will become a fact of life. That line come from Zeke Emanuel, chair of the Department of Medical Ethics And Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. In The Washington Post, he lays out a four-pronged approach to avoid what he calls this nightmare scenario. Part of his argument is that antibiotics right now are too cheap, and he joins us to discuss the problem. Welcome to the program.

ZEKE EMANUEL: Nice to be here with you.

SHAPIRO: So there was news last week that a woman in Pennsylvania had a bacteria that was resistant to what’s known as an antibiotic of last resort, and that’s hit off this latest wave of concern about superbugs. Explain why you believe the price of antibiotics is partly to blame.

EMANUEL: Well, you know, the course of new, quote, unquote, “expensive antibiotics” might be $4,500 or $5,000. But a course of course of chemotherapy drug for cancer or a drug to fight multiple sclerosis can be $75,000, $100,000, $150,000 for a year of treatment.

And if you’re a drug company thinking about, where do I invest in terms of research and development – do I develop a $5,000, or do I developed $150,000 drug – you’re almost naturally going to go to the $150,000 drug. And so I think that’s a, you know – a major, major reason that we only have 37 antibiotics now in clinical development.

SHAPIRO: Could raising the prices of antibiotics have negative consequences as well?

EMANUEL: Well, of course. It’s going to happen (laughter). Everything has a positive and negative consequence. The negative consequence is it’s more expensive to treat these infections. Some people might not get them because the drugs are too expensive, although that’s pretty unlikely in the United States.


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