Five Minutes to Midnight?

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To those of us who grew up in the '60s the phrase is a familiar one. It was about the then unaddressed threat to the whole of mankind by the expansion of the world's population outgrowing the food production. There have been many such threats over the centuries. The Black Death, in the 14th century, decimated not only our population but that of the whole world, killing an estimated 30 to 60% of Europe's population. At the beginning of the 20th century the Spanish Flu pandemic killed around 50million.

These major events are the stuff of our nightmares and a favourite ground for film makers who seek to prey on our fears. The fears that have been threats over the past 75 years or so that have not always manifested themselves as realities, at least for the wealthy nations of the northern hemisphere. They include the Cold War (with the slogan,"would you rather be red than dead?"), the global warming issue (including the worrying confusion about the veracity of statistics proving or disproving what is for me still a hypothesis) and for us in the UK the concerns about our power generation and its cost for the next 50 years, or so.

Having lived in a peaceful zone of the world all my life, like many of us, I have no idea what it is to live in a country under a real rather than a prospective threat. The snippets of information I extracted from my parents were remarkably unenlightening. My older brother's baptism in church whilst an air raid was in prospect and them dashing to the air raid shelter on hearing the siren only to find everyone else returning to their homes, they having slept through the warning siren. Very similar to the sparse stories recounted by my father-in-law, who flew bombers.

If you asked our children and grandchildren what they thought was our greatest danger now it might be global warning or perhaps they might (not unreasonably) concern themselves with funding the baby boomers' retirement and health care. We have, after all, left the world and the succeeding generations with a heavy burden of debt and poor prospects.

With these fears resting on our shoulders our government has announced a plan to spend £375 billion over the coming years on our country's infrastructure. Very worthy foresight on their part, no doubt and it has probably kept more than a few civil servants busy in their inflation proofed pensionable employment preparing the fantasy visions. Included in the plans is the controversial decision to build HS2, a railway line to enable us to go faster from one place to another and seemingly designed to destroy much loved areas of our countryside. The projected cost of £50billion has already been increased once and is likely to exceed even the most pessimistic estimates. Few appreciate that between £1 and £5billion is currently being spent on the planning of this scheme.

I am aware of a company which may need to raise just a few million. They have already raised and spent a few other million to develop antibiotics, for commercial gain. They are now very close to achieving their objectives which they have done on a shoe string in comparison with the mind blowing sums being expended unsuccessfully by the major pharmaceutical companies to develop new antibiotic drugs.

The importance of the work being undertaken in this field cannot be emphasised enough. The current Chief Medical Officer for England, Professor Dame Sally Davies, said on 26th March this year, "Resistance to antibiotics risks a health catastrophe to rank with terrorism and climate change." In case you think that this is just one person, Dr Margaret Chan, Director of WHO (World Health Organisation), said in April 2011, "……a resurgence of deadly infections to threaten many other life saving and life prolonging interventions like cancer treatments, sophisticated surgical operations and organ transplants."

Dame Sally Davies has also recently published a short book, "The Drugs Don't Work" (which is very difficult to get hold of, except in electronic form) and it makes worrying reading. In the world outside our protected and cosseted Northern Europe and North America, the resistance of bacteria to our existing antibiotics is increasing frighteningly and ultimately this will affect us.

Our existing antibiotics are facing increasing resistance from bacteria and almost without a headline the world is facing a "five minutes to midnight" moment. But where is the next generation of drugs we have come to depend on going to come from? The costs of developing such drugs, together with the clinical trials deemed necessary by the regulators, are enormous. Particularly in the field of antibiotics, where the research can take ten to fifteen years, only for a drug in development to fail the final trials, dashing both hope for commercial success and the desperately needed new drug. But this small company, with innovation and ingenuity, are at the very edge of success for the world and themselves, achieved on a pittance in comparison with the major pharmaceutical companies.

So we, as a nation, are planning to spend £375 billion on our infrastructure over the next few years. A tiny fraction of that sum, less than one thousandth of one per cent is what one tiny company may need to take its research and development to a stage where we really could buy the world more time, in the on going battle with disease.

Do we want to dash from one place to another, ever quicker? Or should we face up to the reality of a world desperate for new drugs? No brainer, isn't it?

David Ingall

Past President

UK200 Group



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