On 5 October 2015, Chinese scientist Youyou Tu was awarded the Nobel prize in Medicine for her role in creating a drug that helped slash malaria mortality rates in Africa and Asia, saving millions of lives. In the years after this discovery, Artemisinin Combination Therapies (ACTs) became the World Health Organisation recommended treatment for malaria.
ACTs have been used as a cure for malaria since Tu’s discovery in the late 1970’s. The drug is derived from the plant Artemisia annua, also known as sweet wormwood. Although demand for ACTs escalated since the early 2000s, it remained expensive and unprofitable for farmers to produce Artemisia annua.
That was why the Center for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP), from the University of York, set up a research project in 2006 to increase world-wide availability and quality of Artemisia annua. The project aimed to reach sustainable quantities of high yielding Artemisia annua hybrid seed. The project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
In 2012, international seed company East-West Seed and CNAP teamed up to build a robust supply chain for the production of the Artemisia plant. The hybrid variety developed by CNAP is produced by East-West Seed, which also markets the new variety in China and Africa.
The production and commercialization of hybrid Artemisia annua varieties form the basis of a robust supply chain for plant-based malaria treatment. This, in turn, contributes to the availability and worldwide access to Artemisinin Combination Therapies (ACTs).
Bert van der Feltz, CEO of East West Seed: “We are pleased to be in a position to produce and supply F1 hybrid seed for this essential medicinal crop. We share in the commitment of CNAP and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate malaria globally. I am thankful that we can contribute to saving millions of lives through this partnership.”
In 2013, 392 million ACT treatment courses were delivered to both public and the private sectors in 79 endemic countries.
East-West Seed’s artemisia seed sales to Africa in 2015 have doubled compared to 2014. To date, our seed sales have the potential to deliver over 200 million artemisinin combination therapy treatments.
Earlier this year, the leading CNAP hybrid, Hyb8001r, was officially registered in China. With China being the world’s largest grower of Artemisia, the plant can now contribute even more to the global production of the antimalarial drug.