- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 15, 2003

GUANGZHOU, China — An ancient herbal remedy adapted by Chinese scientists to help Vietnamese communists defeat the Americans in the 1960s is the key ingredient in a cheap malaria cure that is being backed by the World Health Organization.

Already available in China, Artekin is now being mass-produced in preparation for its international launch in two months. It will go on sale in Southeast Asia first, prior to its planned release internationally.

The WHO hopes that the drug’s price — expected to be as little as $1.20 a dose — and efficacy will finally provide an affordable cure to a disease that claims more than 1 million lives a year around the world.

The agency is helping Chinese authorities to set up a joint venture with Western pharmaceutical companies through Medicines Against Malaria, a Geneva-based non-profit organization partly funded by contributions from Bill Gates, the Microsoft billionaire.

The joint venture, which is being supported by an initial $5 million from Medicines Against Malaria, is intended to launch the product for Western markets and travelers. The partner companies involved have not yet been named for reasons of commercial confidentiality.

“There is no question that this discovery is very important,” said Allan Schapira, WHO’s coordinator for its Roll Back Malaria project.

Recent tests indicated that Artekin cures nearly 100 percent of patients and kills the blood parasite so quickly that it cannot build up resistance. By contrast, chloroquine — the most common anti-malarial drug available — has a success rate of less than 40 percent.

As long ago as 1981, China revealed some details of its progress on the drug to the WHO.

The communist regime feared, however, that Western companies would steal its work while WHO officials were unconvinced by the quality of the work of Chinese scientists.

The brainchild of professor Li Guoqiao of the Guangzhou University of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Artekin has been 30 years in the making. The drug’s origins lie in Project 523 — a secret military outfit that was set up in 1967 to help Vietnamese communists defeat the United States.

“The biggest enemy for both the Americans and the Vietnamese was malaria. Project 523 was set up to help the Vietnamese military defeat malaria,” said Mr. Li, who joined 523 at its inception. He spent the next seven years trying to find a cure. Then, on a trip to the mountainous Yunnan province in 1974, he came across a plant called qinghao — which was first mentioned as a cure for malaria in Chinese medicine books dating from 340 BC.

The plant extract is called artemisinin, and Mr. Li was astonished to see that it could even cure patients with advanced cases of complicated malaria, such as the cerebral version, which are usually fatal.

The Vietnamese used the compound for their troops in the final stages of the Vietnam War. Mr. Li made his breakthrough in 1997 when he used artemisinin in conjunction with Western synthetic drugs to create Artekin.

He said: “My life’s ambition has been to produce a treatment that patients can have access to — this is a poor man’s disease.”

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