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WHO, China in malaria standoff

20th March 2007

In what may be the first major test of director general Margaret Chan's tenure, the World Health Organisation (WHO) is at loggerheads with a Chinese pharmaceutical company over an anti-malarial drug which the UN body says is contributing to resistance in African countries.

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The WHO is asking Shanghai-listed Kunming Pharmaceutical, located in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming, to stop making its antimalarial drug which is derived from a traditional Chinese herbal medicine in use for centuries.

It says the drug, which is based on artemisinin and earns the company millions of dollars annually in revenues, is no longer suitable for use because it is a monotherapy, which are believed to contribute to resistance.

Chinese officials say WHO is being unfair to China, which developed artemisin-based drugs and brought them to production.

Instead, the WHO recommends combination therapies, but has only approved one therapy - Novartis' Coartem - for use against malaria. Kunming's combination treatment has not been approved, although it, too, is available in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ninety percent of the world's deaths from malaria occur in the region, making it a massive market for antimalarial therapies. Most antimalarials sold in Africa come through the private sector, which is beyond WHO's remit.

The relationship between China and Africa is burgeoning, and one of the factors in Chan's winning of the WHO directorship was her support for African countries. 

 

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