Woman in mask taking pulse of reclining man in mask (© Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images)
A physician (left) examines a tuberculosis patient at the Sizwe Tropical Diseases Hospital in Johannesburg on August 5. (© Michele Spatari/AFP/Getty Images)

Until quite recently, people suffering from highly drug-resistant tuberculosis had poor treatment options and a poor prognosis, but a new medicine for people with the worst cases of TB is now giving hope where almost none existed.

Developed by scientists at the New York–based nonprofit TB Alliance, the new pill is called pretomanid. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved its use in conjunction with two other antibiotics — bedaquiline and linezolid — and tests indicate that the three-drug regimen has a 90 percent cure rate for patients suffering from the most lethal forms of tuberculosis.

Pretomanid is only the third anti-TB drug approved by the FDA in more than 40 years.

The new treatment could soon be available worldwide, as the World Health Organization typically follows the FDA’s lead in approving new medicines. The World Health Organization said that 10 million people fell ill from TB in 2018 and the disease claimed 1.6 million lives.

Tuberculosis has now surpassed AIDS as the world’s leading infectious cause of death, and while only a small fraction of TB patients contract the deadliest strain of the disease, very few survive it. But the new drug regimen, says the FDA, cures most of these patients within months.

According to the World Health Organization, highly drug-resistant TB has been reported in more than 120 countries, and some 558,000 new cases were reported in 2017, including a smaller subset of patients with extensively drug-resistant TB, the deadliest strain targeted by the new drug regimen. Until now, the prescribed treatment was lengthy and complicated, requiring as many as eight kinds of shots and pills. Patients often died well before completing their treatment cycles.

TB Alliance said it will work with the World Health Organization to speed adoption of the all-oral, three-drug combo in countries where highly drug-resistant TB is endemic, potentially helping more than 75,000 patients each year.