The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation said Sunday that it would sharply increase its investment in malaria research, awarding $258.3 million in grants to hasten ways of preventing and treating the disease.
Counting the new money, the Gates Foundation will soon be providing more than a third of the world's annual research budget for malaria, eclipsing the U.S. government as the leading funder of such work.
The grants, to be spent over five years, will bring worldwide malaria research to about $375 million a year That is a quarter of the sum that men in wealthy countries spend annually buying Viagra.
Malaria kills an estimated 1.2 million people a year, the large majority of them African children who have yet to reach their sixth birthday, and the toll has risen sharply over the past two decades.
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft Corp. and creator of the foundation that bears his name, called the dearth of malaria funding "a disgrace." The Gates Foundation, the world's largest charitable organization with nearly $29 billion in assets, has launched a broad assault on global health problems.
"It's really a tragedy that the world has done so little to stop this disease that kills 2,000 African children every day," Gates said in a conference call with reporters. "If those children were in rich countries, we'd have headlines, we'd take action, and we wouldn't rest until every child was protected."
The grants were announced just ahead of a global health conference here, sponsored by Time magazine and the Gates Foundation, that aims to put a spotlight on malaria and other diseases of poor countries.
The new grants are aimed at speeding research on methods to prevent malaria, such as improved insecticides to combat the mosquitoes that carry it, and on medicines to treat people who contract it.
One grant, for $107.6 million, will fund accelerated work on what could be the first malaria vaccine, under development in Rixensart, Belgium, by the biologicals division of GlaxoSmithKline PLC, the huge London drug company. The accelerated timetable means that vaccine could be ready in as little as six years.
Research to date has suggested the vaccine could conceivably cut malaria deaths in half. Jean-Pierre Garnier, chief executive of GlaxoSmithKline, said in the conference call with Gates that his firm will try to make the injection more effective.
He pledged to seek a vaccine "that can be priced at a minimum cost and produced in very large quantities" for distribution in the poorest countries.