LONDON (Reuters) - Drug companies are failing to put their research dollars into antibiotics and other key areas of unmet medical need, highlighting a mismatch between the hunt for profits and public health, Europe's top health regulator said.
Thomas Lonngren, outgoing head of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), said on Wednesday the organization he has led for 10 years might in future need to step in as "watchdog" to advise where R&D funding should be focused.
The rise of "superbugs," or antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria, is a growing problem. Drugmakers, however, have little incentive to invest in new drugs that are typically saved for the sickest patients and so have only small sales.
"We have more or less a gap of five years without research into new antibiotics," Lonngren told a conference at the agency's London headquarters.
"This is probably one of the biggest health threats in the world today ... it's an issue where commercial consideration doesn't really match the public health need."
Lonngren also said he was concerned some pharmaceutical companies were pulling back from research into central nervous system disorders, even though such conditions were likely to become more common as Europe's population ages.
The drugs industry is going through a period of upheaval as patents on blockbuster medicines expire, shrinking its revenue base and forcing capacity cuts. In contrast to the past, the axe is falling on research labs, where productivity in recent years has been dismal. Lonngren, who has proposed a new five-year strategic plan to the EMA board before he retires on December 31, said it was not for regulators to dictate where industry should invest its money, but they might in future give advice to politicians and the public at large about deficiencies in the research effort.
"There is not only a lack of medicines in terms of numbers but also a lack of medicines in important areas where there is a high unmet medical need," he said.
"One of the areas we are exploring is (for the EMA) to act as a watchdog, to see how the pipeline is looking in terms of research and development -- and if we see gaps in drug development, we will finger it."
Overall, he painted a grim picture of the drug industry's recent output, saying many new medicines offered limited benefit and often helped a small minority of patients.
Editing by David Hulmes