By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, March 1 (Reuters) - French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA) has launched a new cheap and easy-to-take combination pill to fight malaria that could help reduce deaths from the killer disease in Africa, it said on Thursday.
Sanofi is working with the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi) — a group backed by charity Medecins Sans Frontieres — and will sell the drug at no profit for less than $1 for adults and 50 cents for children under five years old.
The two-in-one pill is designed primarily for Africa, where a child dies of malaria every 30 seconds, but an amended form is also in the works for Latin America, South East Asia and India, where there are different types of malaria.
The new medicine is a fixed-dose artemisinin-based combination, or ACT, that is more convenient and less expensive than currently available drugs — and is seen as far more effective than older chloroquine treatments to which resistance is now common.
Malaria, caused by a parasite carried by mosquitoes, kills at least a million people every year and makes 300 million seriously ill. Ninety percent of deaths are in Africa south of the Sahara, mostly among young children.
Sanofi’s product — which combines artesunate, a derivative of artemisinin, with the older antimalarial amodiaquine — will be manufactured at a Sanofi factory in Casablanca, Morocco.
In an unusual move for a drugmaker, Sanofi has decided not to patent the medicine, leaving the door open for generic companies to copy it and produce their own cheap versions.
Bernard Pecoul, executive director of the non-profit DNDi group, said the strategy would maximise access.
"This product will be available on a large scale for two reasons — first, because Sanofi-Aventis will use their considerable distribution in Africa and, second, because they have accepted non-exclusivity, which means we will have multiple sources of production very soon," he said.
The inappropriate use of old drugs like chloroquine has contributed to the current high death rate from malaria, prompting the World Health Organisation to call for use of ACTs that can fight multi-drug-resistant strains of malaria.
Artesunate-Amodiaquine Winthrop, as the new drug is called, has already been registered in 10 African countries, in addition to Morocco, and 10 million treatment courses are expected to be sold this year, Pecoul added.
It will be available next month in Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Madagascar, Mauritania, Guinea and Gabon, with other countries following.
The no-profit preferential price will apply to sales to public organisations, international institutions, non-governmental organisations and programmes promoting access to drugs in pharmacies in countries where malaria is endemic.
The medicines will also be sold at higher prices in private markets.
Switzerland’s Novartis AG NOVN.VX already markets an ACT drug called Coartem, but malaria experts say there is a need for additional medications to fight the disease in poor countries. (Additional reporting by Emma Batha)