High Demand Leads to Shortage of Malaria Drug

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Science  12 Nov 2004:
Vol. 306, Issue 5699, pp. 1115
DOI: 10.1126/science.306.5699.1115b

The World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned last week that supplies of a potent antimalaria drug may fall up to 4.5 million doses short of their demand forecasts. Officials at Novartis, the Swiss-based company that manufactures the drug, blamed the shortfall on agricultural suppliers failing to keep up with growing demand in developing countries.

Artemether-lumefantrine (brand name Coartem) is a form of artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) favored by WHO because of the increasing number of strains of malaria that are resistant to traditional drugs (such as chloroquine). Since 2001, Novartis has provided Coartem to developing countries at cost.

A key ingredient of the drug comes from the Chinese wormwood plant (Artemisia annua). Suppliers of the ingredient have struggled to ramp up production to meet the growing interest in ACT, says Andrew Bosman, a medical officer at WHO. The plant takes 6 months to cultivate, and the drug requires 3 to 5 months to process, resulting in a mismatch between orders and supplies, he says. To help combat the shortage, WHO will step up its malaria-prevention efforts and plans to develop a prioritization system for drug distribution.

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