From Nature.com:

A computer image of a cluster of drug-resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis.

US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/ Melissa Brower

The fight against antibiotic-resistant microbes would suffer a major blow if widely circulated rumours were confirmed that pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca plans to disband its in-house antibiotic development. The company called the rumours “highly speculative” while not explicitly denying them.

On 23 October, drug-industry consultant David Shlaes wrote on his blog that AstraZeneca, a multinational behemoth headquartered in London, “has told its antibiotics researchers that they should make efforts to find other jobs in the near future”, and that in his opinion this heralds the end of in-house antibiotic development at the company. “As far as antibiotic discovery and development goes, this has to be the most disappointing news of the entire antibiotic era,” wrote Shlaes.

AstraZeneca would not directly address these claims when approached by Nature for comment. In its statement it said, in full:

The blog is highly speculative. We continue to be active in anti-infectives and have a strong pipeline of drugs in development. However, we have previously said on a number of occasions that as we focus on our core therapy areas (Oncology, CVMD [cardiovascular and metabolic diseases] and Respiratory, Inflammation and Autoimmune) we will continue to remain opportunity driven in infection and neuroscience, in particular exploring partnering opportunities to maximise the value of our pipeline and portfolio.

Research into antibiotics is notorious for its high cost and high failure rate. AstraZeneca has previously said that its main research focus would be on areas other than antibiotic development.

Public-health experts have been warning about a trend among large pharmaceutical companies to move away from antibiotics research — just as the World Health Organization and others have pointed to the rising threat of deadly multi-drug-resistant strains of bacteria such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis or Staphylococcus aureus (see ‘Antibiotic resistance: The last resort‘).