Malawian doctor leads ‘kinder’ TB breakthrough

The World Health Organisation announced this week that it will update its global guidance on tuberculosis treatment after a clinical trial led by Bern-Thomas Nyang’wa, a British-Malawian doctor and director of medical services at Doctors Without Borders (MSF).

Nyang’wa said his research began nine years ago after observing that patients with drug-resistant tuberculosis were being subjected to “lengthy, ineffective, and gruelling treatment that disrupted their lives”, making treatment plans difficult to stick to. 

“Little progress was being made to find kinder treatments; diseases that are most prevalent in low- and middle-income countries don’t attract investment,” he said.

The clinical trials stage of the research began in 2017 and enrolled 552 patients in South Africa, Belarus and Uzbekistan, giving them a treatment consisting of four drugs. Results showed 89% of patients on this treatment were cured, compared with 52% among those getting the more complicated tuberculosis treatment, which often comes with nasty side-effects.

About half a million people fall sick each year with drug-resistant tuberculosis, MSF said. Many of them are in low income countries. But two of the drugs in the new ground-breaking treatment are sold by big pharmaceutical companies at prices that make it prohibitively expensive — about $800 for the six-month dosage required. 

According to Christophe Perrin, the tuberculosis advocacy pharmacist with MSF’s Access Campaign, the new treatment “will only see meaningful changes if treatment is affordable”.

Johnson & Johnson, one of the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world, with $93.77-billion in sales in 2021, has previously said its medication for drug-resistant tuberculosis is priced fairly and that calls to reduce the price are “not realistic”. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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