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News Article

From The New York Times


Drug Groups and U.N. Offices Join to Develop Malaria Cures

BYLINE: By Elizabeth Olson

DATELINE: November 18, 1999, Thursday, Late Edition - Final - Geneva

SECTION: Section A; Page 5; Column 3; Foreign Desk

Major drug companies have joined international agencies in an unusual approach to keep research in antimalarial drugs from ending because of the drugs' poor commercial potential.

Each year 300 million to 500 million people become ill from malaria, and a million die, mostly in Africa. The problem is getting worse because some established treatments are becoming less effective. Although the market is vast, "people who need these drugs can't afford to pay," said Richard B. Sykes, chairman of Glaxo Wellcome, which plans to join the World Health Organization and the World Bank in a program called the Medicines for Malaria Venture. The nonprofit project, with a $30 million yearly budget, plans to develop and register a new antimalaria drug every five years.

The sum budgeted is only a third of the estimated average $500 million cost of discovering and marketing a new drug, but industry and public officials fear that without a new approach, no new antimalaria drugs will come to market.

The joint venture "has been created because the increased costs of developing and registering pharmaceutical products, coupled with the prospects of inadequate commercial returns, have resulted in the withdrawal of the majority of research-based pharmaceutical companies," said the W.H.O. director general, Gro Harlem Brundtland.

The organization aims to halve the incidence of worldwide malaria by 2010, when the first drugs developed in the new venture should become available.

Robert Ridley, acting head of the program, said the idea to set up an independent group grew out of discussions by industry officials on how to keep drug companies interested in an unprofitable business area. In the joint venture, the companies will work with academic researchers.

Officials estimate that the cooperation will still require a cash outlay of $150 million for each drug developed, in addition to such in-kind contributions as access to companies' chemical libraries. Then, Mr. Ridley said, the industry would have to help make sure that any newly discovered drugs were made widely available. "You're not going to get a $1 million blockbuster drug, but you can make it so it's not a huge money loser," he said.

So far, 120 research projects have submitted requests for financing and three have been selected to receive $4 million through next year. Glaxo Wellcome will work with Bristol University, SmithKline Beecham with the University of California and Roche of Switzerland with the University of Nebraska.

In addition to W.H.O. and the World Bank, the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Global Forum for Health Research and Swiss and British government agencies are supporting the project.

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