More than 130 years after the naming of the Plasmodium Falciparum parasites behind malaria in 1890, the world now has its first approved vaccine against them.
On October 6, 2021, the WHO approved the first malaria vaccine, which could save the lives of tens of thousands of children in sub-Saharan Africa. Made by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the vaccine called RTS,S encourages a child’s immune system to thwart the deadliest and most prevalent of the five malaria pathogens.
Since 1987, and at a cost of more than $750 million, researchers have developed and tested the RTS,S vaccine, also known by its brand name Mosquirix.
Dr. Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO’s global malaria program, said: “It’s a huge jump from the science perspective to have a first-generation vaccine against a human parasite.”
A modeling study has estimated that the vaccine could prevent 5.4 million cases and 23,000 deaths in children younger than 5 each year.
Vaccine or not: People stop Malaria
Malaria may offer insights on how we can survive contemporary scourges like COVID-19. Malaria evolved at least 2.5 million years ago and first infected humans in rural parts of Africa. It then spread to all continents save Antarctica.
Between 2000 and 2019, national governments working with local health workers saved an estimated 7.5 million lives and prevented an estimated 1.5 billion cases of malaria.
Forty countries have now eliminated malaria. Over the last two decades, innovations were introduced, including rapid diagnostic tests, novel medicines, and new insecticides to kill malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and all raised hopes.
But as with vaccines, masks, tests, and medicines against COVID-19, medical breakthroughs on their own can’t defeat malaria. Millions of people, largely in rural and poor communities, remain out of reach of these innovations. Malaria still causes more than 200 million cases and 400,000 deaths worldwide every year. Another child will have died from malaria in the two minutes you take to read this article.
Countries succeeding in beating malaria recognize outbreaks start and stop in communities. They’ve prioritized reaching the unreached through community health workers
A recent scientific review of 28 countries’ responses to COVID-19 found those with the lower COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people made greater investments in community health workers who rapidly find patients and track, isolate, and provide social support to those exposed to the virus.
GSK has to date committed to producing 15 million doses of Mosquirix annually up to 2028 at a cost of production plus no more than 5% margin.
However, roughly 100 million doses will be needed annually if all children in high burden countries are to receive the shots.
At a potential cost of about $5 per dose, researchers suggest the vaccine rollout, including its distribution, would cost around $325 mn to administer each year across ten African countries with a high incidence of malaria.
Africa will start talks with the WHO about getting the first approved malaria vaccine to the continent as soon as possible, the African Union’s top health official said recently.