GENEVA, April 18 (Reuters) - Merck KGaA said it is developing a children's formula of its drug to treat schistosomiasis, a parasitic worm disease that infects millions of poor people in Africa and Asia.
Schistosomiasis kills 280,000 people each year in Africa alone, the German drugmaker said on Tuesday. It can cause anaemia, diarrhoea, bladder cancer, slow cognitive development, as well as infertility problems in females.
The company said it has donated 500 million tablets of praziquantel to the World Health Organisation (WHO) over the last 10 years for use in 39 African countries, primarily targeting children who catch the disease in contaminated rivers and lakes.
But the pill is large, bitter and difficult for children to swallow, Belen Garijo, CEO of healthcare at Merck KGaA, told reporters in Geneva. The new formula will be sweeter.
"We have learned that we need to customise the formulation of praziquantel to the patients that we want to treat. This is why we are developing a children user-friendly formulation that we expect to bring to the market in the next couple of years."
"We are actually very close to filing because we are aiming to file in early 2019," Garijo said. "We will be filing in as many countries as possible in Africa. We don't anticipate any major challenges in production so we will scale up as quickly as we can in order to be able to put a sweetened formulation in front of the pediatric population."
Merck's initial commitment 10 years ago to donate 25 million tablets a year from its plant in Mexico has grown ten-fold. Its annual donation has a value of around $30 million, she said.
"Now we have stepped up to 250 million tablets per year ... We believe that with the tablets we are donating we can treat approximately 100 million patients a year. This is going to last until elimination."
Garijo was among senior pharmaceutical executives due to meet Bill Gates privately in Geneva on Tuesday to discuss stepping up the industry's contribution to fighting 18 neglected tropical diseases known as NTDs. The WHO and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will host a meeting on Wednesday.
Since a key 2012 meeting in London, NTD medicines have been provided at a cost of less than $0.50 per person per year through drug companies and partnerships, for an estimated value of $2 billion to $3 billion a year, WHO director-general Margaret Chan wrote in the Financial Times on Tuesday.
"The tide is turning," she said. (Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Susan Fenton)