Sanofi shipping new malaria treatment manufactured from 'semisynthetic artemisinin'

French drugmaker Sanofi has released its first batches of a malaria treatment made from semisynthetic artemisinin using a new manufacturing process that will allow it to make tons of the ingredient and so help stabilize its volatile global market.

Sanofi ($SNY) and Seattle-based non-profit PATH announced last week that over the next few months, 1.7 million doses of Sanofi's ArteSunate AmodiaQuine Winthrop (ASAQ Winthrop), a fixed-dose artemisinin-based combination therapy, will be shipped from a Sanofi distribution center to half a dozen African countries: Burkina Faso, Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Niger and Nigeria. The treatment was manufactured and shipped from a Sanofi facility in Morocco.

Artemisinin usually comes from the scarce sweet wormwood plant. According to Reuters, artemisinin was first isolated by the Chinese army in the 1960s from the Chinese sweet wormwood shrub. Treatments that include the ingredient are considered the first line of defense against the most serious iterations of the disease. The disease kills about 660,000 people a year, mostly in Africa. But supplies can vary wide, and so can price. Between 2003 and 2004, for example, the price climbed to nearly $550 a pound from $100 a pound, crashed again a few years later and then doubled again in 2009, NPR reported last year.

But the partners put into play a process developed by California-based Amyris, a biotech partially backed by France's petroleum company Total, along with researchers at the University of California, Berkeley. The process can synthesize artemisinin in a lab and produce large quantities of it in yeast, which earlier attempts had failed to accomplish.

Using the process, Sanofi is now able to produce 50 to 60 tons of the semisynthetic artemisinin, about a third of the global demand for artemisinin. When Sanofi and PATH announced the plan last year, they said that the fermentation process would be done by Huverpharma in Bulgaria and that commercial production of semisynthetic artemisinin would take place at Sanofi's Garessio site in Italy.

- here's the announcement
- get more from Reuters