Plan to produce synthetic anti-malaria drug criticized as “assault on farmers”

A decades'-long struggle to produce a synthetic version of one the world's favored drugs for treating malaria, artemisinin, was celebrated as a victory for poor people. But now is being criticized as an assault on poor farmers. Global supply of artemisinin, which until now has been produced from harvest of the plant sweet wormwood, has been erratic in both quantity and supply. Hundreds of millions of people fall ill with malaria every year with an estimated 650,000 deaths -- mostly in children. The goal of this project, led by Seattle-based PATH in collaboration with the French drug firm Sanofi, was to supplement the global supply with this synthetic version. PATH officials told me that Sanofi's ultimate production goal would likely only meet one-third of the global need, but the scientist who developed the synthetic drug said the goal is to totally replace dependence on the natural crop.
Artemisia, anti-malaria botanical
Artemisia
WHO

Earlier this week, I reported on the culmination of a decades’-long struggle to produce a synthetic version of one the world’s favored drugs for treating malaria, artemisinin.

Global supply of artemisinin, which until now has been produced from harvest of the plant sweet wormwood, has been erratic in both quantity and supply.

Hundreds of millions of people fall ill with malaria every year with an estimated 650,000 deaths — mostly in children. The idea here was to expand access to these life-saving drugs. But no good deed goes unpunished….

The goal of this project, led by Seattle-based PATH in collaboration with the French drug firm Sanofi, was to supplement the global supply with this synthetic version. PATH officials told me that Sanofi’s ultimate production goal would likely only meet one-third of the global need, but the scientist who developed the synthetic drug said the goal is to totally replace dependence on the natural crop.

That hasn’t gone over too well. As one farmers’ advocate wrote in The Guardian:

This sounds like good news for poor people but may be a step backwards – the start of a new hi-tech assault on farmers.

The science journal Nature mentions this market ferment as well, adding that increasing the supply of the drug does not solve the problem of poor people being able to pay for it – and that global funding for expanding malaria treatment in poor countries looks increasingly at risk.

If Sanofi’s product is rushed into pharmacies at similar prices to existing products, it could disrupt an already volatile market (see Nature 466, 672–673; 2010). “If it’s brought in too fast it could create huge shortages, because people will stop producing the natural stuff,” says Malcolm Cutler, technical adviser to the Assured Artemisinin Supply System initiative, which organized the Nairobi conference.

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.