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By Tan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG (Reuters) - In a laboratory in China's southern city of Guangzhou, scientists are trying to enhance the rare sweet wormwood shrub, from which artemisinin -- the best drug to fight malaria -- is derived.
China hopes to improve and use the drug as a uniquely Chinese weapon to fight malaria not on its own soil, where the deadly disease has been sharply pruned back, but in Africa, where it still kills one child every 30 seconds.
Already, a Chinese-backed eradication programme on a small island off Africa has proven a huge success.
Away from its practical application, scientists back in the lab in Guangzhou are also achieving results. In one of the lab's refrigerators sit a dozen triangular test-tubes holding seedlings of the sweet wormwood shrub, also called Artemisia annua, which has only been found in the wild in China, Vietnam and border areas in Myanmar.
"There are about 0.6 parts of artemisinin in every 100 parts of the plant in the wild, but we have managed to increase the artemisinin content to between 1.2 and 1.8," said Feng Liling, assistant professor at the Tropical Medicine Institute in Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine.
China pledged to help Africa fight malaria at the triennial Forum on China and Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) in 2006 and has since set up 30 anti-malaria and prevention units. The next FOCAC meeting is in Egypt on November 8-9.
Helping developing countries eradicate malaria will help China project its influence and prestige as a global power, said politics professor Joseph Cheng at City University in Hong Kong.
"China is exploring cost effective ways to help the Third World and is interested in making distinct contributions," Cheng said, adding that Western interest was often lacking in a disease that seldom afflicts rich country citizens.
"Malaria suits these requirements. It is not that expensive. It is cheaper than fighting AIDS."
Tanzania, Kenya and Nigeria have begun farming hybrids of the sweet wormwood shrub with Chinese and Vietnamese ancestry, said Li Guoqiao at the Tropical Medicine Institute.
"I inspected the plantations and the plants are growing well," Li told Reuters in an interview.
Asked if China would export the high-yielding Artemisia annua to Africa, Li said: "We want to grow them in China and whatever we export depends on bilateral relationships."
Li is spearheading a project on the tiny African island of Moheli, which belongs to the Comoros group of islands at the northern mouth of the Mozambique Channel.
In mid-November 2007, he launched a "mass drug administration" exercise on the island. Its entire population of 36,000 had to take two courses of anti-malarial drugs to flush the parasite from their bodies -- on day one and day 40.
The rationale was that while mosquitoes pass the parasite from person to person, they are merely "vectors" and not hosts. The real reservoir of the disease is people, and many carry the parasite in their bodies without even showing symptoms.
"The key is to eradicate the source, which is in people. Without the source, the vectors are harmless," he said.
The results were startling. While the parasite carrier rate in Moheli ranged from 5 to 94 percent from village to village before the exercise, that fell to 1 percent or less from January 2008 and has stayed around that figure since.
"Before, 70 to 80 percent of hospital patients were there for malaria. After that, you hardly find any," Li said.
Comoros now bars anyone from entering Moheli unless they take a course of antimalarial drugs -- a mix of artemisinin, primaquine and pyrimethamine that China provides for free.
Its government has asked Beijing to roll out the same programme in two of its larger islands, Grande Comore and Anjouan, with a total population of 760,000. Li said Beijing supported the idea in principle and that funding was being worked out.
(Editing by Jeremy Laurence)