(Reuters) - French drugmaker Sanofi said on Tuesday it had delivered the first large-scale batches of an antimalarial drug made using semi-synthetic artemisinin, a key ingredient usually derived from the sweet wormwood plant.
Shipping the treatment to six malaria-endemic countries in Africa marks a new phase in the fight against the mosquito-borne disease and will reduce reliance on volatile supplies of the Chinese medicinal plant.
Both the botanical supply of sweet wormwood and the price of artemisinin can fluctuate widely, leading to periodic shortages.
The Chinese army first managed to isolate artemisinin from the sweet wormwood shrub in the 1960s and the medicine has since become the world's best line of defense against malaria, with artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACT) now recommended for the most deadly forms of the disease.
The new manufacturing process pioneered by Sanofi and U.S.-based non-profit PATH produces the ingredient on an industrial scale using a genetically modified yeast to convert sugar into a precursor of artemisinin.
Sanofi said it had the capacity to produce 50 to 60 tonnes a year of semi-synthetic artemisinin, which corresponds to a third of the global annual need.
ACT drugs are recommended by the World Health Organization because of growing resistance to older treatments such as chloroquine.