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The Novartis Malaria Initiative: lessons from a
dramatic decade

April 22, 2011

In 2001, Novartis AG and the World Health Organization (WHO) unveiled a unique 10-year alliance to provide a breakthrough medicine against malaria – without profit – for use by public health systems in developing countries.

It was a critical moment for millions of people in many of the world’s poorest countries where malaria is endemic. Existing antimalarials had been rendered ineffective by the emergence of deadly, drug-resistant parasites and effective new medicines were urgently needed.

Novartis agreed to provide its drug, known as Coartem (artemether-lumefantrine), at an average price of USD 1.57 per treatment – but a considerably lower price for young children who are most vulnerable to malaria. The WHO reviewed requests for supplies and distributed Coartem through governments of malaria-endemic countries. Specially designed packaging was developed to facilitate proper use by children and other patients who could not yet read.

At the time, public-private collaborations were still relatively untested. Scientists at the WHO and other United Nations (UN) agencies remained wary of close ties with private industry. WHO made cautious predictions that Coartem deliveries would reach 2 million treatments by 2005.

A decade later, those early projections seem hopelessly conservative, the Novartis Malaria Initiative is acclaimed as one of the most successful access-to-medicine initiatives yet, and a key treatment milestone has been achieved. Since 2001, Novartis has provided more than 400 million Coartem treatments, saving an estimated 1 million lives. About half of those treatments have been earmarked for children under the age of five.

On May 22, Coartem enters a new phase with expiration of the original Novartis-WHO alliance. Underscoring our long-term commitment to the battle against malaria, however, Novartis will continue to provide Coartem to public health systems in developing countries on the same terms as before.

Across the board, the program is more dynamic than ever. Price reductions in recent years have more than halved the price of Coartem. Orders received during 2011 have reached record levels and production is running at maximum capacity. Enhanced affordability and accessibility have helped broaden use of Coartem to more than 60 countries today, from 12 countries in 2004.

Even the most effective drug is useless unless it reaches patients who need it most. The Coartem story is one of innovative alliances spanning two decades and four continents focusing meticulously on the needs of patients. Our experience offers key lessons for other initiatives targeting "neglected" diseases that take a daunting toll in the developing world.