* Rise in funds leads to largest ever drug pipeline
* But report warns donors must maintain funding level
By Kate Kelland
LONDON, June 28 Annual funding for research and development (R&D) in the fight against malaria has quadrupled over 16 years, generating the strongest pipeline of potential treatments in history, according to a report on Tuesday.
The non-profit research group Policy Cures warned, however, that even a slight drop in annual funding could jeopardise this pipeline, derail development of much-needed products, and potentially increase the cost of fighting the disease in future years.
The malaria product pipeline currently includes almost 50 drug development projects, one vaccine candidate in late-stage testing -- an experimental shot called RTS,S from GlaxoSmithKline -- and dozens of other vaccine candidates in various stages of development, the report said.
There are also many new insecticide ingredients for mosquito control and a new generation of simple, rapid, and highly sensitive diagnostic tests, it said.
"In the coming years, the fruits of this unprecedented investment in malaria research and development could save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives," said Awa Marie Coll-Seck, executive director of Roll Back Malaria (RBM), which commissioned the report. "This robust product pipeline gives us hope that eradication of malaria is possible."
She added that cutting funding now would be "a foolish waste of a historic opportunity." The total available for R&D in 2009, the latest year for which figures are available, was $612 million.
The report assessed progress against the R&D funding goals in a Global Malaria Action Plan set out by RBM in 2008, and estimated what would be needed in the coming decade to deliver the tools required to control, eliminate and eventually eradicate malaria.
It found that sustained, relatively modest increases are needed to boost annual funding to $690 million by 2015, and then called for a larger jump in 2016 to $785 million.
There are 225 million cases a year of malaria, a mosquito-borne disease which can damage the nervous system, kidneys and liver. Severe cases can lead quickly to death.
According to the World Health Organisation's latest global malaria report, good progress has been made over the past decade, with deaths estimated to have dropped to 781,000 in 2009 from nearly a million in 2000. The largest absolute decrease in death rates was recorded in sub-Saharan Africa, but Africa still accounts for nine out of 10 deaths, mainly children under five.
Tuesday's report stressed the need to keep up the momentum of the past 10 years and said investing sufficient funds now should allow overall malaria R&D funding to decline beyond 2016 by about 5 percent a year until 2020.
"The malaria control community is in a position to achieve unprecedented reductions in malaria deaths if investors stay the course," said Mary Moran, Policy Cures' director.
The report also noted that malaria R&D funding is highly concentrated, with funding from fewer than a dozen governments accounting for nearly half the total in 2009 and industry investment for nearly a fifth. Coll-Seck called for more donors and investors to enter the field.
"The global malaria community does not need a blank check, rather it needs targeted and strategic investments that continue to take us toward the goal of eradicating malaria," Moran said.
The report was funded by Roll Back Malaria, the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND), Innovative Vector Control Consortium (IVCC), Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV), and the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative. (Reporting by Kate Kelland, Editing by Mark Trevelyan)