Optimizing artemisinin production

The MMV artemisinin programme

In 2007, MMV and the WHO joined forces to attempt to harmonise the production of artemisinin to meet global need.

Although the leaves of Artemisia annua shrub (sweet wormwood) have been used to treat malaria by Chinese herbalists for more than 1,500 years, the compound artemisinin was only fully embraced by modern medicine as an antimalarial treatment in the 1980s. The artemisinin derivatives are active against all species of Plasmodium and are able to rapidly kill all the blood stages of the parasite – resulting in the shortest fever clearances times of all antimalarials. As a result, artemisinin and its derivatives have been considered the treatment of choice for uncomplicated falciparum malaria by the World Health Organization (WHO) since 2001.

This turnaround in malaria treatment practices led to a surge in demand for artemisinin-based medicines – reliant on the production of a natural product. Global demand for artemisinin rapidly outstripped its production. In 2004 the WHO forecast that the global need in 2005 would be for over 130 million treatment courses; while the estimate was that only half would be available. Reliable low-cost supplies of artemisinin were urgently needed.

In light of this, The MMV-WHO Artemisinin Programme was established with support from the Dutch Foreign Ministry. The programme aimed to help farmers and extractors and derivatizers identify ways in which they could reduce costs and increase efficiency (and stay in business) – introducing greater cooperation/coordination within the industry. The ultimate goal was to help ensure sufficient supply of artemisinin to meet ACT needs.

This was facilitated through a series of annual conferences coordinated by MMV and the WHO in addition to meetings, task forces and specifically funded projects. All these activities brought together and disseminated information to the stakeholders involved in the cultivation, extraction and derivatization of artemisinin – providing a platform for discussion and debate of the problems and opportunities to increase artemisinin production. Presentations and reports from these conferences and meetings can be found in the artemisinin-related events section.