A new malaria vaccine was approved for use by European regulators Friday that admittedly did not exhibit perfect protection results in testing, but is widely expected to save millions of lives. Even if the malaria drug only helps one-third of those given the treatment, the difference could be significant.
The new vaccine, Mosquirix, took 28 years of effort and a heavy cash infusion from the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, an offshoot of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-supported medical charity based in Seattle. The Gates Foundation has spearheaded several efforts to fight the mosquito-borne infectious disease.
Malaria affects millions of people, mainly in Africa, each year. Roughly 580,000 die annually. So, an imperfect vaccine, as shown in clinical trials, would have considerable success in reducing the annual death toll. The trials, which involved 16,000 children in eight African countries, reduced malaria cases in almost half for children between 5 and 17 months of age. It reduced cases by 27 percent for newborns and older toddlers.
Measurable progress against malaria was already achieved through increased use of bed nets, insecticides and drugs. The rate of contagion in Africa, where nine out of 10 malaria death occur, dropped 54 percent from 2000 to 2013 with the focused efforts. However, the death toll is still high, particularly for those under age 5.
GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) the United Kingdom’s biggest drug manufacturer, reported that they received a “positive scientific opinion” from the European Medicines Agency for the vaccine. That will likely lead to a World Health Organization (WHO) recommendation for and adoption of the vaccine in affected regions. The WHO will probably discuss the vaccine at a planned meeting in October. If recommended by the United Nations-related agency to address global health issues, individual governments in malaria-affected regions would then have to decide whether to adopt it the recommendation and implement inoculation efforts.
Critics question whether the affected countries have the infrastructure (and money) to handle an inoculation effort that requires each child to receive three doses. Additionally, the tests showed the antiviral effects of the vaccine dwindled over time during the clinical trials, so there are concerns that the expensive effort will have to be repeated when the children are older, too.
GSK has indicated that it will not use Mosquirix as a money-spinner. They plan to sell the vaccine “at cost plus 5 per cent.” That amount has not been announced. The company also indicated plans to engage directly with the governments and public health officials in areas prone to disease carrying mosquitoes to address costs and effective strategies for roll-out plans. Gavi, an international organization that distributes vaccines to poorer areas of the world has indicated that, if approved and funding is found, it would be ready to supply Mosquirix.
So, the debate at the WHO will undoubtedly involve a discussion as to whether to engage in the effort and expense of acquiring Mosquirix and distributing it widely in malaria-prone areas when it is known to not be effective more than half of the time. Others will clearly argue that the new malaria vaccine is not perfect, but an immediate implementation could be expected to save millions of lives in the coming years.
Written and edited by Dyanne Weiss
Financial Times: World’s first malaria vaccine gets green light from Europe
The Telegraph: What is malaria and how is it transmitted?
NPR: Why A Vaccine That Works Only A Third Of The Time Is Still A Good Deal
Photo courtesy of U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Public Health Image Library