A non-profit group announced Monday it has persuaded two companies to make cheap and easy-to-take combination doses of the most effective malaria pills and should have them available by the end of next year.
The Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, a group set up by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) and other groups to find cheap alternatives for treating common deadly diseases, said it now needs help persuading groups to distribute the pills and finding people to take them.
The drugs, both artemisinin-based combination therapies or ACTs, will be more convenient and less expensive than currently available drugs -- and far more effective than the old quinoline-based drugs, the group said.
France’s Sanofi-Aventis and Brazil’s Far-Manguinhos will make the drugs without patenting them, and will work to get the cost down to less than $1 a dose, the group said.
“The reason that countries are using lousy drugs to treat malaria is that they can’t afford better drugs,” said Nick White of Britain’s Oxford University and the nonprofit Wellcome Trust, who worked on the initiative.
“You go to most rural areas of the tropics where malaria kills children and most are using drugs that are not effective,” White told reporters at a meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
“Malaria actually could be fixed. We don’t need a miracle drug. We don’t need a miracle vaccine. We have the tools now,” White added. “We actually could save millions of lives.”
Malaria, caused by a one-celled parasite called plasmodium carried by mosquitoes, kills at least a million people every year and makes 300 million people seriously ill. Ninety per cent of deaths are in Africa south of the Sahara, mostly among young children, according to the World Health Organization.
Two children killed a minute
“Malaria kills an African child every 30 seconds,” the WHO says.
The Plasmodium falciparum parasite that causes most deadly cases of malaria resists conventional antimalarial drugs such as chloroquine, sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine and amodiaquine.
Compounds known as artemisinins are derived from the plant Artemisia annua, grown in China. They have been shown to reduce deaths from malaria by up to 30 percent if used properly.
The artemisinins will cure falciparum malaria in seven days, but in combination with other drugs can do the job in three days.
Switzerland’s Novartis AG markets an ACT drug called Coartem, but malaria experts said it was too expensive for widespread use.
Sanofi will make a three-day, two-dose pack of artesunate plus amodiaquine while Far-Manguinhos will make a three-day pack of artesunate plus mefloquine. Both have been shown to have a 90 percent cure rate when used properly in certain regions.
They will also make a lower-dose formula for children.
Dr. Bernard Pecoul, executive director of the Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, said the group was now talking to the U.S. Agency for International development, the World Bank and the Global Fund for AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria to see if they would help pay for and distribute the pills.
“They know the program is coordinated and recommended by WHO,” Pecoul said in an interview.
Gilles Roche of Sanofi said the company was looking at ways to grow the artemisia plant in Africa. “The problem is the Chinese -- they keep the price up. They have a monopoly,” Roche said in an interview.
“We have to break the monopoly.”
That will help get the price down to a dollar a dose, he said.