Agribusiness and big pharma prioritising profits could lead to 10 million deaths a year by 2050 – but political intervention can prevent this disaster

An antibiotic apocalypse is coming. It threatens to reverse medical practice by 100 years by making life-saving operations impossible and turning routine infections into killers again. Rather than panic and head to the hills, we need to understand the heart of the problem, and transform two of the most antisocial industries in the global economy: agribusiness and pharmaceuticals.

We’ve known about the problem of antibiotic resistance for decades. The reason we’ve not taken the action required to protect one of humanity’s most important medical breakthroughs is simple – it would threaten the profits of some of the world’s largest corporations.

The human cost of antibiotic resistance is mind-boggling. At least 700,000 people already die from antibiotic-resistant infections every year, and if we don’t take action, that number will rise to 10 million by 2050. Diseases from gonorrhoea to TB will become untreatable. Caesarean sections, joint replacements and chemotherapy could become too dangerous to perform. Unfortunately, when these facts go head to head with profits, they lose out.

First, take pharmaceuticals – the most profitable sector in the world. The so-called big pharma companies maintain their profit margins through very long monopolies on new (or newly adapted) drugs, as well as all manner of financial shenanigans. Far from requiring these decades-long patents to allow them to research new drugs, these companies actually spend far more on advertising than they do on research. They also spend more on stock buybacks to keep their share price high in the money markets.

Big pharma is the epitome of monopoly capitalism. It’s not going to waste its time developing new, fallback antibiotics that will only be used as a “medicine of last resort” – because by the time their use becomes widespread, the patents will have expired and the profits will be gone.