As Sequestration Slashes Drug Research Funding, Drug-Resistant Malaria Emerges

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Cambodian children sit behind anti-malarial bednet. (Credit: Smithsonian Magazine)

Malaria kills hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people every year. It’s the fifth-leading killer in the developing world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And according to a worrying new study, a new strain of the disease is evolving that resists the treatment typically used to combat it — just as budget cuts in the United States are cutting off massive amounts of funding for research to develop new drugs.

The study, published on Sunday in Nature Genetics, documents “several distinct…parasite subpopulations” in Western Cambodia that differ in many respects, but share resistance to to artemisinin, the key ingredient in artemisinin-based combination therapies (ACTs), the dominant type of drug cocktail used to fight malaria today. This finding represents the first formal scientific documentation of artemisinin-resistant malaria in the region, though reports of such a strain have been trickling in since 2008.

Struggles with drug-resistant malaria is nothing new in the fight against malaria: the disease has always periodically developed resistances to new drugs, and the WHO developed a plan to fight the spread of ACT-resistant malaria in 2011. A well-funded global anti-malaria campaign has helped to significantly reduce the disease’s lethality over the past decade.

However, the emergence of drug-resistant malaria is particularly concerning today, as sequestration in the United States is choking off one of the world’s most important sources of research and development funding. According to the Global Health Technologies Coalition, sequestration will slash roughly $1.5 billion from the National Institutes of Health alone. Combined with automatic cuts to other agencies, like the Food and Drug Administration, this will translate into an across-the-board cut of between 5 and 7.8 percent for global health research. That’s hundreds of millions, potentially billions, of dollars from the world’s largest source of government funding for malaria research. The United States government more than five times more funding for malaria research than any government, accounting for over half of all government dollars worldwide. The NIH alone provides 20 percent of all — state, private, and philanthropic — global research dollars.

And the urgent need for response to drug-resistant strains isn’t limited to malaria. Global health organizations are running out of funding to find a response to drug-resistant tuberculosis, another disease that kills millions of people worldwide per year. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) is desperately warning about a lack of adequate research devoted to so-called “superbugs,” mutated deadly diseases that also resist antibiotic responses.

Meanwhile, budget cuts in Greece have led to the country’s first malaria outbreak “in decades.”