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Novartis strikes malaria drug deal

Children are among the first victims of malaria. Novartis

Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis has signed an agreement to increase its production of a key anti-malarial drug.

The agreement will enable it to supply the World Health Organization (WHO) with the quantities of the drug it requires.

Novartis produces Coartem – a highly effective anti-malarial drug based on artemisinin, an ingredient extracted from the artemisia plant.

At the end of last year, the company warned that it might not have enough artemisinin to meet demand for the drug.

It now says it has signed a supply agreement with the Kenyan company East African Botanicals (EAB) to counter the shortage.

New supplier

EAB is already exporting locally produced artemisinin to Europe, according to managing director Phillip McLellan.

Novartis spokesman Bruno Hofer told swissinfo that Africa represented the second most important source of supply after China, and that the first batch of artemisinin could be expected by the last quarter of 2005.

WHO medical officer Andrea Bosman welcomed the agreement between Novartis and EAB as a step in the right direction.

“The organisation is encouraged by the concrete efforts that manufacturers of artemisinin-based Combination Therapies (ACTs) are making to upscale production, to increase procurement of raw materials and to expand manufacturing facilities to meet the rapidly increasing demand for the drug,” he told swissinfo.

Upscaling production

Novartis announced last November that there was a supply shortage of artemisinin.

The plant is cultivated primarily in China where it takes producers at least one year to grow and harvest the plant and extract the component.

Novartis made it clear that owing to the rapidly growing demand of Coartem over the past few years, its Chinese supplier would not be able to provide the ingredient in sufficient quantities.

As a result, the company would only be able to produce 30 million treatment courses instead of the 60 million needed for 2005.

Bosman said that the pharmaceutical company was currently evaluating the possibility of increasing its production capacity beyond the current limit of five million average treatment courses per month.

“It will increase the volume available [and] it may also play a role in encouraging the producers of artemisinin, and stimulating agricultural production to serve the needs of manufacturers,” he explained.

He added that Novartis was expected to announce in the next few days whether it would approve the building of new manufacturing sites to increase production capacity.

African artemisinin

WHO, which receives the anti-malarial drug Coartem at cost price for public sector use in developing countries, advocates its use around the world.

The organisation said it was important that artemisinin production was increased in order to keep the disease under control.

“We want artemisia grown in Africa as soon as possible, but we want a strong market and market growth in the future,” said Allan Shapiro of WHO.

He added that the gain in additional supplies would be small in the short term, but that data regarding the yield in East Africa looked very promising.

“There is potential for East Africa to play an important role,” Shapiro said.

swissinfo, Katalin Fekete

Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis has signed an agreement with a Kenyan company for the supply of artemisinin, an ingredient necessary for the production of the anti-malarial drug Coartem.

This agreement, which comes at a time when there is a shortfall in artemisinin, allows Novartis to increase its production capacity.

The WHO says more treatments of the anti-malarial drug are needed to keep the disease in check.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR