Pharmaceutical Firms Battle Against Time to Make New TB Drug

January 19, 2002

Multinational pharmaceutical companies and research institutions are racing to meet a 2010 target for developing a new drug to fight the growing global scourge of tuberculosis.

European drug company AstraZeneca has committed 25 million dollars over five years at its research facility in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, where more than 90 scientists and researchers have already started work.

"India is closer to the disease. The average time to develop a drug is 15 years. We are trying to lower that time period," S. Anand Kumar, director of the AstraZeneca Research Foundation India told AFP on the sidelines of a recent international symposium on tuberculosis here.

About one-third of the world, or two billion people, is estimated to be infected with the TB bacillus, although only five to 10 percent, especially those with HIV/AIDS, get sick.

One person dies of tuberculosis every 15 seconds and in India alone one person dies every minute.

Foreign firms such as Novartis and GlaxoSmithKline have started research for finding a new drug before the 2010 deadline set by the Global Alliance for TB Drug Development -- a non-profit public-private partnership.

Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis in November 2001 announced the establishment of a 122 million US dollar tropical disease research institute in Singapore to focus on "two neglected diseases," tuberculosis and dengue fever.

British-based GlaxoSmithKline in 2000 launched a 10-year, 32-million-dollar "Action TB" plan in partnership with academic and public institutions to improve TB control through basic research.

It aims to identify new targets for TB drugs, develop vaccines and diagnostics, and conduct research.

Maria Freire, chief executive officer of the Global Alliance admitted the 2010 deadline was an "ambitious" goal.

"We are at a critical moment. This is within our reach as people from multi-disciplines are looking into it. We can at least have targets which we never had before," Freire said.

"It is achievable but we know it is not going to be easy. No other time in history could we have said this," she said.

Freire said the rapid spread of tuberculosis and its overlap with the HIV/AIDS epidemic demanded a new drug.

She said the World Health Organisation's Directly Observed Treatment Strategy (DOTS) which was launched eight years ago had not expanded fast enough.

"Only 23 percent of the people diagnosed with tuberculosis complete the full treatment course under DOTS," as the course was time-consuming, she said. "This has resulted in the spread of multiple resistant strains."

According to Freire, the only solution is the development of a new and affordable drug which can cure in two months.

"India has a considerable amount of wealth in its scientists," Freire said, adding many institutions and companies here had approached her.

But a WHO official warned against banking on a new drug to cure and control the disease.

"There are three methods to fight the disease --- drugs, diagnostics and vaccines. One must improve all the three cases," said Mark Perkins, manager of the WHO's diagnostics wing.

"Diagnostics and vaccines play an important part. We have the tools but not the means. Most of the TB cases are not diagnosed. One must also look at different diagnostic methods. Therein lies the key," Perkins said.

"Research is a risky business. No one is sure of its success. If you put 25 million dollars I will say it is a brave effort but if you ask me whether you will reach there I am not sure."

The symptoms of TB are a persistent cough, which is not responsive to antibiotics, fever and weight loss. It may occur outside of the lungs in lymph nodes, bones, kidneys and the central nervous system.