The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has signed off on Coartem, an anti-malaria drug whose active ingredient is a Chinese herb.

The drug, made by Swiss-based Novartis, is a combination of artemether (a derivative of the herb artemisinin) and lumefantrine (a broad-spectrum antibiotic). The three-day medication, already available in 80 other countries, cures more than 96 percent of malaria cases, including those in areas where the parasite has become resistant to chloroquine, which for decades was a widely used preventive and treatment.  

“Because of concerns about drug resistance with currently available drug therapy, it will benefit patients to have another treatment option for malaria available,” Edward Cox, director of the Office of Antimicrobial Products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement released after yesterday's decision. 

Most malaria infections occur in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin America. An estimated 350 million to 500 million cases occur annually, resulting in around one million deaths, most of them in children.

The FDA approval gives military service members overseas and some 1,000 to 1,500 U.S. travelers diagnosed with malaria each year access to the drug. Coartem will become available in the U.S. in the next four to six weeks, retailing for $69.60.

Our Ask the Experts piece on artemisinin explains more about the herb and its role in Coartem.

Anopheles stephensi mosquito, which transmits malaria/CDC via Wikimedia Commons