New Delhi: The government on Monday launched bedaquiline, billed as a wonder drug to treat multi-drug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis, in collaboration with Johnson & Johnson.
Johnson & Johnson has donated sufficient quantities of the drug to treat 600 patients at six public health facilities—namely National Institute of Research in Tuberculosis (NIRT), Chennai; National Institute of TB and Respiratory Diseases (NITRD), New Delhi; Rajan Babu Institute for Pulmonary Medicine and Tuberculosis, New Delhi; Sewri Hospital, Mumbai; B.J. Medical College & Hospital, Ahmedabad and Government Medical College, Guwahati.
Officials in the health ministry and experts highlighted the immense challenges that the battle against TB still faces in India, which reports 2.2 million new cases of the disease every year.
“Ending TB by 2030 is the dream we have to work towards. With optimizing the currently available tools, diagnostic technology and drugs, we can reach a certain point. May be we can at most reduce TB prevalence by 7-8%, not more than that," said Soumya Swaminathan, director general, Indian Council of Medical Research and Secretary, department of health research, ministry of health and family welfare.
The 600 patients the newly launched medicine will treat at the start is just a fraction of the estimated 75,000 MDR-TB patients and 2,500 extreme drug resistant patients that India has.
“It is good that the new medicine is available only in government sector to avoid its overuse that can lead to resistance to it. But treating a small number of patients will not serve the purpose," said Leena Menghaney, a lawyer who has been working on access to medicines and public health.
She said bedaquiline has to be combined with another medicine called Delamanid for optimum results.
“But the latter has not been registered in India by patent holding company Otsuka Pharmaceutical. Thus, despite availability of bedaquiline, patients will not get best possible results," she added.
Swaminathan cautioned that the efficacy of bedaquiline, which she said was the first drug to treat TB launched in 40 years, will be short-lived.
“We know TB bacteria develop resistance to any new drug very soon. Today we celebrate bedaquiline, but we have to remember, it will not be long before resistance is developed to bedaquiline also. So, we need to keep developing new drugs, but we have to use the current drugs also optimally," she said.
Lack of timely diagnosis in rural areas and reaching tribal regions are other hurdles in the fight against TB.
“We need point of care diagnostics, like blood, saliva and urine tests that can be done in villages or at primary health centres. We have it for many other diseases, why not for TB? We need investment in research," Swaminathan said.
Jagdish Prasad, director general of health services, said reaching tribal vulnerable areas was a big challenge.
“I urge private practitioners in these areas to help the government reach out to the patients and provide them full course of medicines," said Prasad.