Co. May Provide Drug for WHO

Friday, February 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GENEVA (AP) — A drug credited with curing an African killer disease may soon be supplied to doctors for free by a U.S. company interested in using it for another purpose — eliminating facial hair.

Stocks of eflornithine, a cure for the brain disease sleeping sickness, were running out worldwide after Aventis, which held the patent, said in 1999 it no longer intended to produce the drug and handed over the production license to the World Health Organization.

After two years of work, the WHO has now persuaded the U.S. company Bristol Myers Squibb to supply it with the drug for use against the disease, in return for the rights to use it in its hair-removing face cream Vaniqa.

``This is a pretty terrible illness, and it's nice to be able to report a success,'' said Jean Jannin, head of the sleeping sickness surveillance center at WHO.

Jannin said the agency would sign a deal with Bristol Myers Squibb within a few days and he did not want to reveal details until then.

But the Nobel Prize-winning aid agency Doctors Without Borders, known by its French initials MSF, said the company had agreed to supply eflornithine free of charge for the next three years.

Daniel Berman, of the agency's Access to Essential Medicines campaign, said the company would supply 60,000 doses per year, which would be enough to provide treatment across Africa.

The agencies are also negotiating with Bristol Myers Squibb over the long-term supply of the drug. Berman said MSF was pressing for a price of dlrs 10 per vial. A full treatment takes seven vials.

Sleeping sickness is caused by parasites transmitted by the bite of the tsetse fly and affects the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. The parasite invades the blood and lymph glands and then the central nervous system, causing brain damage. Without treatment, it is always fatal.

A seven-day treatment of eflornithine can cure a patient even in the late stages of the disease. The shortage of the drug until now has meant that MSF has had to use an alternative called melarsoprol, an arsenic compound which kills 3-5 percent of patients treated with it.