Novartis launches anti-malaria alliance
Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis is spearheading a new public-private partnership aimed at discovering a new generation of malaria treatments.
The Wellcome Trust charity, the Singapore Economic Development Board (EDB), and Geneva-based non-profit organisation Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), will assist in the hunt for a one-dose malaria cure.
Novartis already produces a malaria drug, Coartem, which it provides at cost price to developing countries which suffer an estimated one million deaths a year from malaria.
The Singapore-based Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD) will take the lead in developing new drugs together with the Swiss Tropical Institute and other institutions. The firm will provide industry expertise and open up its extensive library of compounds to its partners.
"We are in an industry where diseases and human beings are at the centre of our work," said Novartis chairman and chief executive Daniel Vasella.
"Having been criticised in the past for not funding neglected diseases, our industry has a strong purpose to play an active role in society."
MMV president Chris Hentschel said the public-private partnership presented the best way of including profit minded companies in a non-profit project.
"Malaria does not create an industry [for pharmaceuticals] because it affects the poor and children," he said. "And public sector research rarely ends up with products."
"Because of that we must come up with other mechanisms to engage industry. The public-private partnership is a remedy that produces a tangible outcome."
The Wellcome Trust has already invested $300 million (SFr362 million) into basic malaria research and, together with the EDB and MMV, will inject a further $20 million into the project.
But another issue the partnership must tackle is overcoming the problem of getting drugs to patients in developing countries.
"It is not all about having a new molecule, but it has to reach the patient in a way that they can use it," NITD chairman Paul Herrling told swissinfo.
"That implies distribution and knowing the culture in these countries. Our partners have people in the field who know the patients and the environment. Our different skills have to come together to have a successful outcome."
The main reason the partnership wants to find a single course malaria cure is to make it easier for patients who often fail to complete a multiple course of drugs.
But Vasella also pointed the finger at some governments in affected countries for not doing enough to ensure supply to malaria sufferers.
"There is a tendency for governments to shift the responsibility for delivering drug supplies on to the private sector," he said.
"We can contribute, but we can't solve the problems of education and supply. Governments must make sure treatments go to the right people."
swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Basel
Novartis is the fourth largest pharmaceuticals company in the world in terms of sales.
The Wellcome Trust is the most diverse biomedical research charity worldwide, spending around $846 million a year on improving the health of humans and animals.
The Singapore Economic Development Board is an agency focused on developing Singapore as global hub for businesses and investment.
Medicines for Malaria Venture is a non-profit organisation and has more than 20 anti-malarial drugs in its pipeline.
There are an estimated 300-500 million new cases of malaria each year, resulting in more than a million deaths annually (90% in children in Africa).
The drain on African economies alone is around $12 billion, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Under the terms of a public-private agreement with the WHO in 2001, Novartis provides the anti-malarial drug Coatem at cost price for public sector use by patients in malaria-endemic countries.
In 2005 Novartis delivered 9 million treatment courses and has scaled up production with partners to reach around 70 million courses by the end of this year.
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