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Glaxo, Novartis join US$4b Gates-led push to fight malaria
[LONDON] GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis will contribute research funds to an almost US$4 billion global effort to combat malaria as drug-resistant strains of the disease threaten to undo years of progress.
The commitments are part of a wide-ranging initiative, led by a pledge of US$1 billion from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to quell the insect-borne disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people around the world each year. Glaxo, the UK's largest drugmaker, is investing an additional US$250 million, while Switzerland's Novartis will allocate more than US$100 million, the companies said before a meeting on Wednesday in London.
Urgency is rising as malaria cases grew significantly in 2016 for the first time in a decade, according to the World Health Organization. Emerging resistance to drugs and insecticides is making efforts to eliminate the disease more difficult, and some regions are experiencing a resurgence.
Certain variants of the lethal parasite called Plasmodium falciparum can evade artemisinin, the most potent medicine available. These resistant strains have been detected in five Asian countries and risk taking hold in Africa, according to Novartis, which makes a version of the drug. Billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates has said that it would be a "disaster" if a mutant form of the parasite moved beyond South-east Asia to Africa, where most malaria deaths occur.
Novartis and the Medicines for Malaria Venture are pushing to develop an alternative to artemisinin and began testing a new anti-malaria pill in Africa last year. Pilot projects for the first vaccine - developed by Glaxo and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative - are due to begin in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi later this year. The experimental vaccine has been in research and development for about four decades, and the projects will take five years to complete, according to Glaxo.
"Malaria is still killing so many children, and the challenge has always been out there to find something which could potentially eradicate it," Luc Debruyne, Glaxo's global vaccines president, said in an interview. The vaccine is "a very important first step".
The broader battle will depend on advances in science and technology, including gene editing, Mr Gates has said. The Microsoft Corp co-founder has highlighted the promise of research using a DNA-editing technique known as Crispr to genetically alter mosquitoes and cause females to become sterile or produce mostly male offspring. Only female mosquitoes bite and therefore spread malaria.
The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is expected to unveil commitments at the London event of US$2 billion from 46 countries affected by malaria between 2018 and 2020, while Uganda is setting up a malaria fund to help raise additional resources of US$785 million by 2020. The UK government committed US$230 million in addition to prior funds.
The number of malaria cases rose 2 per cent to about 216 million globally in 2016, and the number of deaths was about the same at 445,000, according to the Geneva-based WHO.