Croatian Antibiotic a Mainstay of Doctors’ Medical Bags

Have you ever paid attention to where the drugs your doctor prescribed you come from? If so, you may have noticed that a popular antibiotic for throat infections comes from Croatia.

Young woman sitting on bed and feeling sick, taking medicines in hand with a glass of water, stock photo.
Photo: iStock.com / AsiaVision

Pliva, the largest Croatian pharmaceutical company, has owned a drug research center since the 1950s and has successfully secured several patents. However, until the 1990s, many patented formulas were left out of mass production due to insufficient funds. However, one patent achieved world fame. The substance that secured a brighter future for the Pliva pharmaceutical company is a born killer, literally, azithromycin – a powerful antibiotic. It has been prescribed over 10 million times in the US in the last seven years and regularly makes the Top 50 best-selling drugs.

Azithromycin, the wonder drug

Every team has that one member who is the catalyst behind its work – the perpetual motivator and the cheerleader who would do anything to make the team succeed at its endeavor. This is exactly how Lidija Kolačny-Babić believed in her team that discovered azithromycin and applied for their research findings to be presented at a scientific conference in Dubrovnik. The management of Pliva had already disbanded that research team and assigned them places on new research, but Lidija believed that they had discovered something revolutionary, as was the case.

However, due to budget cuts, Lidija was unable to present the work at the conference. Instead, the paper was included in a publication produced as a result of the event. You may smirk and say, “Does anyone even read those publications?” Thankfully, in the 1980s, it was the only available format for propagating the latest research (yes, there were times without the internet). And the scientists from the American company Pfizer read the work of Pliva’s team.

Azithromycin, Zithromax, Sumamed…

How would you react if someone called you and said they wanted to manufacture your product and pay you royalties? After the call from the head of Pfizer to Pliva’s management, things changed dramatically. It turned out that Pfizer’s scientists were also developing azithromycin. Still, they did not manage to patent it before Pliva, so the two companies agreed to divide the market for the future drug.

Pfizer would produce the drug using Pliva’s patent under the name Zithromax, pay royalties, and sell the drug in the USA and Western Europe, while Pliva would sell its product in Eastern Europe. The head of the research team, Slobodan Đokić, named the Croatian drug Sumamed, a combination of the Latin words suma and medicine (because the drug was multifunctional for treating several types of diseases.)

What diseases can you treat with Sumamed? By far, its most famous medicinal property is the treatment of bacterial throat infections. In addition to the throat, Sumamed and Zithromax can also cure sinusitis, otitis media, bacterial bronchitis, pneumonia, and specific skin and venereal diseases. Also, Sumamed causes almost no side effects except mild digestive disturbances in individuals. Such multifunctionality and stability of the drug led to its large sales worldwide and turned Sumamed into a trademark of the entire Pliva.

It is hard to even imagine how things would have developed with azithromycin if Lidija had not sent her team’s work to a conference in Dubrovnik. The world could have still been unaware of this universal antibiotic, suitable for treating so many diseases. This story, like many others about inventors from the Three Seas region, only proves that there are diligent and successful thinkers who, in many cases, only get to be recognized by foreign investors.

(*Editorial note: this is a purely informational article and should not, under any circumstances, serve as a medication guide. Consult your physician before using any drug)

Danijel Bačan

is a final year master's student in geography at the University of Zagreb. His specialization is political geography and regional geography of Europe, he is the author of several scientific articles on geopolitics and tourism. He grew up and lives in Zagreb and is an active member of the Zagreb County Youth Council, the national representative of YATA Croatia and a young European ambassador in the EU Eastern Partnership.

Latest from Business