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[BEIJING] China could make a major contribution to reducing global poverty by taking the lead in efforts to fight malaria, has said a special advisor to the secretary general of the UN.

Jeffrey Sachs was addressing a 24 June meeting in Beijing on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of internationally agreed targets for cutting the number of people living in extreme poverty in half by 2015.

He said China could produce more Artemisia annua, the shrub from which Chinese researchers developed artemisinin, an effective anti–malarial medicine, in the 1970s.

About 90 per cent of the world's A. annua is grown in China. But, according to statistics from China's Ministry of Commerce, the 6,000 tonnes harvested each year can only make one-third of the doses needed.

Following a World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation, 51 countries have adopted artemisinin-based medicines as their drug of choice to fight malaria.

"China can play a critical role [in achieving the MDGs] by helping ensure all malaria patients have effective medicines by 2008," said Sachs.

He said that by growing A. annua on an extra 8,000 hectares of land and increasing its capacity to extract artemisinin and manufacture drugs from it, China could help increase production of artemisinin-based treatments "from the present 30 million treatments to the estimated 400-500 million treatments required for universal coverage of malaria patients".

Xin Jun, director of the Ministry of Health's International Cooperation Department, says that China is working on a new artemisinin-based treatment, which it will ask the WHO to review by the end of this year.

"If [the drug] meets the international standards for antimalarial medicine, there will be a large increase in A.annua production," says Xin.

Others say that growing large quantities of A. annua could be difficult.

Ye Zuguang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, says farmers will need a considerable financial incentive to start growing more Artemesia.

"Only when profits are huge will farmers grow A. annua instead of crops on their limited farmland," says Ye, explaining that most A. annua in China is currently growing in the wild, not being farmed.

Ye says it is important for China to produce medicines containing artemisinin instead of just exporting the plant, because profits are 20 times higher.

According to Sachs, a five-year commitment to boost A. annua production would be worth US$250 million to China. And more importantly, he adds, it would save millions of lives.

"This would be a historic advance in South-South collaboration, and a historic contribution to the Millennium Development Goals," he added.

Every year, more than 50 per cent of the world's population is exposed to malaria, which causes up to three million deaths worldwide. In Africa, one child dies of the disease every 30 seconds.

Harnessing China's potential to lead the fight against malaria is among the main recommendations of the UN Millennium Project, the independent advisory body commissioned by the UN secretary-general to develop a global action plan for achieving MDGs (see Ending poverty 'needs massive science funding boost').

The Beijing meeting was attended by China-based UN officials, foreign diplomats, Chinese government officials and experts in development. It was organised by the UN in China and the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.