UK groups look abroad to fight superbugs

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UK companies developing products that fight hospital superbugs are complaining that there are few opportunities in their domestic markets, and focusing their sales efforts overseas.

In the UK, hospital-acquired infections such as MRSA and clostridium difficile affect 300,000 patients each year and cause about 5,000 deaths.

The problem is worse in the US, where HAIs are estimated to be one of the top 10 causes of death, claiming close to 100,000 lives every year.

And the costs are mounting. In the US, government studies estimate that the extra cost of treating a patient with HAI averages almost $9,000 (£5,600).

UK companies are among the leaders in the fight against superbugs but they say that they are encountering problems in getting their products adopted by UK hospitals. They complain that hospital managers lack accountability for deaths relating to HAIs.

In November, a report by the Department of Health criticised the NHS for not achieving “measurable reductions” in HAIs outside of MRSA and C.difficile.

“The heart of the problem is that whatever DoH says or decrees, it doesn’t necessarily impact hospitals,” says Nick Adams, chief executive of Bioquell, the decontamination technology provider. “In the US, a hospital can be sued and that’s a big deal because they’re desperate to keep it out of the press, so they’ll settle. In the UK, hospitals pass the issue very quickly on to the NHS litigation board, so it’s not the hospital’s problem.”

Synergy Health is another company that produces decontamination technology. It has concentrated its sales efforts in Asia and Europe.

One of Synergy’s decontamination products uses a disinfectant technology produced by another company, Byotrol, that has been tested by the NHS in an 11-month study. The Byotrol technology was deployed against a bleach-based product currently used by the NHS.

Despite positive results showing superior effectiveness and lower side effects, the product has not been taken up, even by the Manchester Royal Infirmary where it was tested.

Richard Steeves, Synergy’s chief executive, says that his group is making more sales to countries where hospitals are encouraged to innovate, such as in the Netherlands, where “hospitals are competing for patients”.

Although there is state-funded national insurance for health care in the Netherlands, hospitals compete with each other to provide services for a number of private insurers.

Most UK hospitals are run by the NHS, and Dr Steeves points out that many of the UK’s private hospitals are owned by private equity, and that there is financial pressure to reduce costs.

However, there are those in the sector that say that innovation by UK companies is a direct result of the “laissez faire” environment.

Paul Swinney is chief executive of Tristel, which produces a chlorine dioxide-based disinfectant that treats everything from salads in supermarkets to surgical instruments and surfaces.

Its product is used throughout the UK, which Mr Swinney says is “de facto approval”. Moreover, he says, companies here do not have to pass the expensive regulatory procedure of the US Food and Drugs Administration or the Environmental Protection Agency.

“In many respects, the UK is a free market that is determining the survival of the fittest products and technologies,” says Mr Swinney. “If your product is just “me-too”, you won’t survive.”

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