Drugmakers prowl willing markets for animal antibiotics as U.S. sales fall

Cows in Pasture
As drugmakers face declining U.S. demand for animal antibiotics, they're looking overseas for new markets.

Starting next year, drugmakers that market antibiotics for food animals will face tough new FDA rules requiring that the drugs be prescribed by veterinarians and that labels no longer suggest the medicines should be used for anything other than preventing disease. So now some pharma companies are taking a proactive approach to stemming an inevitable loss of sales by boosting their efforts to sell antibiotics overseas.

There are still many markets, particularly in Asia and South America, where the demand for meat and poultry outweighs worries about antibiotics resistance, according to Bloomberg. In fact, a 2015 World Health Organization survey found that few countries outside of the U.S. have any comprehensive plans to fight the rise of antibiotics-resistant “superbugs.” That clears the way for drug companies to continue to market antibiotics for use in animals, which they do by suggesting there is no clear link between use of the drugs in livestock and antibiotics resistance in people, experts tell Bloomberg.

“They’re international companies,” Gail Hansen, a veterinarian who consults for drugmakers, governments and nonprofits, told Bloomberg. “What happens in the U.S. does certainly make a difference, but it’s not the only market they have.”

The notion that it may be business as usual for multinational drugmakers that sell antibiotics overseas doesn’t sit well with groups like the National Resources Defense Council, one of the many consumer advocacy organizations that have been fighting to limit antibiotics use in food production. “If some of the biggest responsible parties-–namely the companies making the products-–are still selling the antibiotics in other countries, it just underscores that this has to be a change that happens across the entire world,” said David Wallinga, senior health official and physician at the NRDC, in an interview with Bloomberg.

Several global organizations have tackled the challenge of antibiotics resistance, but with considerably more caution than the FDA. The World Health Organization (WHO) released a global action plan last year that laid out strategic initiatives such as improving the surveillance of emerging antibiotics-resistant bugs, but it was met with resistance from the global trade group HealthforAnimals, which argued that an over-reaction could endanger the health and well-being of animals. HealthforAnimals instead promotes research collaborations aimed at developing new methods for solving antibiotics resistance.

Just last month, the United Nations General Assembly held a day-long summit on antibiotics resistance in New York, which included input from Eli Lilly’s Elanco, Merck and Zoetis. Antibiotics remain a lucrative business for these companies--Zoetis’ sales of the drugs rose from $1.2 billion in 2013 to $1.3 billion last year, Bloomberg points out--and none have expressed any intention of getting out of the market. But some smaller players have started to report weakening demand for animal antibiotics in the U.S., including Phibro Animal Health.

Many makers of animal antibiotics are boosting their efforts to develop antibiotics alternatives, such as vaccines. Elanco, for example, said last year it was studying 25 antibiotics alternatives, and in June of this year, it formed a research collaboration with EnBiotix to develop pathogen-fighting bacteriophages.

Those efforts may prove wise, especially as overseas markets begin to catch up with the U.S. on antibiotics restrictions. On October 14, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) reported that total sales of veterinary antibiotics for livestock dropped 12% between 2011 and 2014 in 24 out of 25 countries surveyed. The decline, said the EMA in a press release, shows that many European countries “are focusing on local actions to further reduce antimicrobial consumption and hence, resistance.”

- read more at Bloomberg
- access the EMA’s release here

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