Warning of ‘Pig Zero’: One Drugmaker’s Push to Sell More Antibiotics
Overuse of antibiotics in livestock has given rise to drug-resistant germs. Drugmakers say they want to be part of the solution. But a recent campaign urged farmers to administer the drugs to healthy animals daily.
By Danny Hakim and Matt Richtel, The New York Times (NYT)
June 7, 2019
Facing a surge in drug-resistant infections, the World Health Organization issued a plea to farmers two years ago: “Stop using antibiotics in healthy animals.”
But at last year’s big swine industry trade show, the World Pork Expo in Des Moines, one of the largest manufacturers of drugs for livestock was pushing the opposite message.
“Don’t wait for Pig Zero,” warned a poster featuring a giant picture of a pig peeking through an enormous blue zero, at a booth run by the drugmaker Elanco.
The company’s Pig Zero brochures encouraged farmers to give antibiotics to every pig in their herds rather than waiting to treat a disease outbreak caused by an unknown Patient Zero. It was an appealing pitch for industrial farms, where crowded, germ-prone conditions have led to increasing reliance on drug interventions. The pamphlets also detailed how feeding pigs a daily regimen of two antibiotics would make them fatter and, as any farmer understands, a heavier pig is a more profitable pig.
The rise of drug-resistant germs, caused by overuse of antibiotics, is one of the world’s most nettlesome health predicaments. Excessive use of the medicines has allowed germs to develop defenses against them, rendering a growing number of drugs ineffective for people and animals. The practices of livestock farmers, who for decades have used huge quantities of the drugs deemed important to humans, have long been viewed as one of the roots of the problem, but the role of the companies that make the drugs has received less scrutiny.
Antibiotics continue to be an important part of the business of companies like Elanco, which spun off from Eli Lilly in September, its share price soaring to $33 from $24. While Elanco is developing antibiotic alternatives for animals, like vaccines and enzymes, the antibiotics promoted by the Pig Zero campaign are exactly the kinds that global public health officials are trying to curb. And Elanco is no outlier — its rivals are also urging aggressive use of their own antibiotic cocktails.
“The reality is that antibiotics and large-scale industrial farming really grew up together,” said Dr. Gail Hansen, a former state epidemiologist and state public health veterinarian in Kansas, who sits on advisory boards addressing antibiotic resistance. She equated the problem with climate change. “By the time people understand and believe it,” Dr. Hansen said, “it may be too late.”
Elanco had already been put on notice about the drugs used in its Pig Zero push. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration warned Novartis Animal Health, which had been acquired by Elanco, that the same antibiotic cocktail was “unsafe” and “misbranded,” because it was being illegally marketed to fatten pigs, rather than to simply treat disease. One of the drugs, tiamulin, has been a top seller for Elanco; the W.H.O. views it as medically important to humans, but American regulators do not. Pig Zero trumpets the benefits of coupling tiamulin with chlortetracycline, a drug made by Elanco’s competitors that both American and international regulators consider medically important to humans.
In an interview at Elanco’s headquarters outside Indianapolis, Jeffrey Simmons, the chief executive, said the company had decided to change the program’s marketing and to stop distributing the Pig Zero brochure after The New York Times began asking questions about it.
“We’re trying to be stewards and leaders at the same time,” said Mr. Simmons, adding that the brochure “wasn’t misrepresentation, necessarily, relative to the label or the science, or how a farmer would look at it.”
Dr. Shabbir Simjee, Elanco’s chief medical officer, said drugs like those in the campaign “would never be administered” in a herd “without some animals being physically sick,” adding that “there would need to be some animals showing clinical signs.”
He likened treating a herd to caring for children in a nursery: “If one child gets sniffles, you usually find that the whole class ends up with a cold, and this is exactly the same principle.”
But children almost certainly would not all be treated with preventive antibiotics in such a situation, and many scientists believe animals often should not be treated that way, either.
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