New drug for recurrent malaria gets FDA approval

Thursday August 2 2018

A doctor takes blood samples from a patient to test for malaria

A doctor takes blood samples from a patient to test for malaria. A new drug to treat relapsing malaria has been approved by health authorities in the US. FILE PHOTO | NATION 

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A new drug to treat relapsing malaria has received approval from health authorities in the US, boosting efforts to eradicate the killer disease across the globe.

The drug, tafenoquine was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration last week. It is the first new treatment for recurring malaria to get a clean bill of health in more than 60 years.

Patients require just a single dose of tafenoquine to get cured. Primaquine, the drug currently in use, is taken for at least 14 days.

“The ability to get rid of the parasite in the liver with a single dose is a phenomenal achievement,” Prof Ric Price of Oxford University told the BBC.

“Tafenoquine represents one of the most significant advances in malaria treatment over the past 60 years.”

Primaquine was developed in the 1940s by American chemist Robert Elderfield to be used in World War II and is in the essential medicines list of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

But the 14-day dose has rendered the drug largely ineffective as many patients tend to stop medication once they feel better, leading to a relapse.

“When it comes to medicine that requires a prolonged course of treatment, compliance tends to be poor. A single dose offers patients protection from a relapse,” said Pauline Williams, the head of global health research at British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline.

Recurring malaria is caused by the plasmodium vivax parasite. It affects at least 8.5 million people around the world every year, accounting for 15-20 per cent of all malaria cases.

The parasite can go into a dormant stage in the liver for years — where most anti-malaria medications cannot reach — before regenerating and causing infections. This has made treatment difficult.

“Together with our partner, Medicines for Malaria Venture, we believe tafenoquine will contribute to the ongoing efforts to eradicate malaria across the globe,” Hal Barron, the MD, chief scientific officer and president of research and development of GSK said in a statement.

The WHO aims to eliminate malaria in at least 35 countries, reduce incidence and mortality rates by at least 90 per cent and prevent a resurgence in malaria-free countries by 2030, as it seeks a malaria-free world as outlined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

While Plasmodium vivax exists outside of sub-Saharan Africa, the continent carries a disproportionately high share of the global malaria burden — accounting for 90 per cent of all cases and 92 per cent of all malaria-related deaths.

Malaria costs African economies more than $12 billion annually, and accounts for up to 40 per cent of a country’s healthcare spend, WHO says.