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New Malaria Drug Could Save Millions of Lives Across Africa

Europe's biggest pharmaceutical company and a small Geneva-based non-profit group have teamed up to produce a malaria combination drug that they say is better, cheaper, and easier to use than other medication on the market. VOA's Sonja Pace reports from London the drug is expected to be available in a number of African countries by mid-April.

The new medication, known as ASAQ, is a small pill that combines two of the most effective anti-malarial drugs known today. While the two components, artesunate and amodiaquine, have been in use for some years, it is only now that they have been combined into one tablet.

European pharmaceutical giant Sanofi-Aventis teamed up with the non-profit group, Drugs for Neglected Diseases Initiative, or DNDi to produce the new combo.

DNDi director Bernard Pecoul says the goal was to produce an effective drug, easy to transport to remote areas, easy to take, low cost and adaptable to adults as well as babies.

"That is why we developed three different tablets - one for the small children, a second one for children until the age of five, a third one for children five to 13, and for all these age groups the treatment is extremely simple - one tablet a day for three days," Pecoul says. "After the age of 13 and for adults, the bigger tablet is used two tablets once a day for three days."

Pecoul says simplicity is vital to ensure that people take the full treatment. The new tablets will cost less than one dollar per adult per three-day treatment, and less than 50 cents per child per treatment.

DNDi works with various public sector groups in developing nations, as well a with U.N. agencies, such as UNICEF and WHO.

Sanofi-Aventis is a highly profitable pharmaceutical enterprise with net sales in 2006 totaling more than $37 billion.

Sanofi-Aventis Vice President for Accessible Medicines Dr. Robert Sebbag says, the company took an unusual step in not insisting on patenting this new drug, something drug companies normally depend on to ensure profits by having exclusive rights to the market for a specified time.

"No patents, no intellectual property for this compound. We have accepted that, because the needs are very important one[s], and the accessibility is something very important," he says.

The need is there. Malaria, along with HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis, is one of the three most deadly diseases in Africa, where it kills one child every 30 seconds.

Dr. Wilfred Mbachem of the University of Yaounde in Cameroon tells VOA that, aside from the human tragedy, malaria also has a tremendous economic impact.

"Africa is losing a lot due to malaria ... in lack of productivity, in lack of hours lost for burial rights, children not going to school, ... they are losing $12 billion a year, but it will take just $4.2 billion to bring the disease under control," he says.

While sub-Saharan Africa is the worst affected area, malaria is a global disease, present in more than 100 countries with 350-500 million cases occurring every year.

The new malaria pill is indeed a global effort. The plant, which provides the main active ingredient, is grown in China, the tablets are being produced in Morocco and the drug has been approved in 10 other African countries.

The drug was officially launched in Paris Thursday. But one day earlier, senior representatives from DNDi and Sanofi-Aventis and experts spoke with journalists in London about the new drug.