updated 8/18/2004 3:59:23 PM ET 2004-08-18T19:59:23

India's Ranbaxy Laboratories announced Wednesday it has developed a new anti-malarial drug, which it claimed would be cheaper and as effective as the drugs now used to cure the disease that kills more than a million people worldwide every year.

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The drug, a synthetic peroxide developed with Geneva-based aid group Medicines for Malaria Venture, is now undergoing clinical trials in Britain, a Ranbaxy statement said.

"Our scientists are excited to be able to work on a drug that could save millions of lives," Ranbaxy Chief Executive Officer Brian Tempest said in the company statement.

The new drug will work as well as artemisinin, the most effective anti-malarial drug currently available, and be much cheaper, the statement said, without elaborating.

Artemisinin combination therapy costs about $2 per dose, an amount beyond the reach of many sufferers in poor countries, and cheap medicines such as chloroquine no longer cure the disease in Africa because the parasites have become resistant to it.

Resistance is spreading in India, too.

"We know about this synthetic peroxide developed by Ranbaxy. The reports that we have heard about it are certainly very promising," said Allan Schapira, coordinator of strategy and policy for the World Health Organization's "Rollback Malaria" campaign.

"But the knowledge about the drug are insufficient to make a judgment at the moment. We hope that it will prove highly efficacious," Schapira said.

Findings from tests on the new drug are being published in the Aug. 19 issue of the science journal Nature.

Malaria, which is carried by female mosquitoes, kills more than 1 million people a year, with 90 percent of the deaths occurring in Africa, according to the United Nations. Most of the victims are children under 5.

Malaria also costs Africa an estimated $12 billion a year in lost gross domestic product and drains 40 percent of its public health spending.

"The need to develop a low-cost, potent synthetic anti-malarial drug is more urgent than ever," said Christopher Hentschel, chief executive of Medicines for Malaria Venture.

"This could be the biggest breakthrough in malaria treatment of our generation," Hentschel said of the new drug.

In May 2003, Ranbaxy Laboratories, India's largest pharmaceutical company, entered into an agreement with the Geneva-based body for laboratory testing, clinical trials and commercial development of the drug.

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