Health: Stronger TB Drugs Expected in a Decade

October 11, 2000

BANGKOK, Oct. 12 (IPS) -- More potent drugs and an easier-to-complete treatment for tuberculosis, a major killer in poor countries, are expected to be out by 2010.

This was the target set this week by an international alliance of private and public sector bodies, which ledged during a conference here to have the first of several new drugs to treat tuberculosis in a decade.

These drugs will be distributed at affordable prices, thus ensuring availability of this remedy for countries worst hit by tuberculosis (TB), said the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development.

This effort is much more than a scientific venture, declared Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, WHO director general. "It is a direct attack on poverty and the disparities between rich and poor."

This alliance, launched at the International Conference on Health Research for Development here, includes the WHO, two United States-based foundations and representatives from the pharmaceutical industry.

The current TB treatment, the Directly Observed Treatment Short-course (DOTS) initiative which international health experts had conceived by 1995, has a 90 percent cure rate. Yet TB kills about two million people a year.

As Brundtland said, weak health systems in the developing world make it difficult for countries to effectively implement the current treatment course.

Often, patients in many developing countries, once they feel better, do not finish the treatment course which spans six to nine months, and thus fail to cure TB completely.

Currently, only 25 percent of TB patients receive full treatment under the DOTS initiative, which requires health workers to counsel and observe their patients swallowing each dose of a powerful combination of medicines and to monitor their progress until they are cured.

The new TB drugs targeted by the alliance are expected to "shorten the duration of TB treatment or simplify its completion," apart from improving the treatment of latent TB infection.

Alliance members say that because DOTS is "cumbersome and labor intensive," they aim to make treatment more convenient by shortening the regimen to two to three months.

For Dr. Ariel Pablos-Mendez, associate director of health equity at the U.S.-based Rockefeller Foundation, "our mission is to accelerate the process of developing new TB drugs, thereby saving lives."

Brundtland added that the alliance is "a shining example of public and private sector partnerships to bridge the gap between market opportunities and people's needs."

The alliance has mapped out its "Scientific Blueprint for TB Drug Development," a document meant to serve as "a guide for scientists and investigators in academia, industry and the public sector in all aspects of TB drug discovery and development."

Consequently, research and development of new drugs will be conducted through a network of public and private groups. The execution of the research findings, including clinical trials, will be given out to laboratories, public research groups and non-governmental organizations.

The blueprint also called for the development of a "portfolio of research and development investments from charitable donations" that can be dedicated to specific drugs, since the alliance needs to attract more than $150 million to finance its work.

Such an initiative, however, is not the first of its kind. Similar public-private partnerships have been created to find remedies for malaria and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) -- the Medicines for Malaria Venture and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative.

The launch of the alliance comes in the wake of growing concerns about tuberculosis, an airborne infectious disease that primarily attacks the respiratory system and can spread through coughing and sneezing.

In March this year, the WHO described the disease that largely affects the world's poor as "a global threat" in its first-ever study about the levels of drug-resistant TB strains in 38 countries.

If not addressed immediately, nearly one billion people could become new victims of TB over the next 20 years, resulting in some 40 million deaths by 2020, according to the WHO.

Statistics show that three million TB cases occur every year in South and South-east Asia, with Bangladesh, Pakistan, India, Cambodia and the Philippines among the countries recording the highest numbers of infections.

In addition, some 1.5 million cases occur every year in sub-Saharan Africa and 250,000 cases in Eastern Europe.

The developed world has not been spared either. According to some estimates, "one in 10 people in North America and Europe are infected," the WHO said.

Moreover, what troubles the WHO and health experts is the deadly combination between TB and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that cause AIDS.

"Part of the TB explosion is due to its collision with the HIV epidemic," observed Brundtland. "In Africa, HIV infects 40 percent of the patients with TB and it is TB that kills a third of the victims of AIDS."

Apart from their being part of a long treatment regimen, anti-TB drugs now in circulation are deemed to be doing little in the battle against the disease. No new drugs have been developed to fight the disease over the last 30 years.

Likewise, the prospect of a potent vaccine to halt this "disease of poverty" is "not expected to have an impact on the developing world for 20 years," the alliance said.

Thus, Dr. Giorgio Roscigno, the acting chief executive officer of the alliance, said the group's approach is "the most important development in TB control since the WHO declared the disease a global emergency in 1993."