The World Health Organization (WHO) has given its stamp of approval to a groundbreaking new anti-malaria vaccine, offering countries a cost-effective and readily accessible weapon against one of Africa’s leading causes of child mortality. Developed by Oxford University, the R21/Matrix-M vaccine marks the second WHO-recommended vaccine in the battle against malaria.
The WHO’s recommendation, backed by extensive preclinical and clinical trial data, demonstrates that the R21 vaccine can reduce symptomatic cases by an impressive 75 percent following a three-dose series within a year, particularly in regions with high seasonal malaria transmission. While Phase III clinical trial results are currently undergoing peer review, the prospects are promising.
Costing only $2-4 per dose, the R21 vaccine is hailed by the WHO as a cost-effective intervention. Expectations are high that this vaccine will be available by mid-2024, bringing renewed hope in the fight against malaria.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus expressed his excitement, stating, “As a malaria researcher, I used to dream of the day we would have a safe and effective vaccine against malaria. Now we have two.”
Malaria, a life-threatening yet curable disease primarily transmitted through mosquito bites, leads to symptoms such as fever, chills, and flu-like conditions. With millions of cases reported annually, malaria claimed an estimated 619,000 lives in 2021, with a staggering 80 percent of these fatalities occurring among children under the age of 5 in Africa.
Although the United States reports around 2,000 malaria cases each year, the majority are contracted overseas. Recently, health officials issued a warning in response to a few cases reported in Florida and Texas in individuals who had not traveled abroad.
The first malaria vaccine, RTS,S, received WHO approval in 2021. However, the demand for malaria vaccines has outstripped the limited supply of RTS,S, impeding global prevention efforts.
To address this challenge, the WHO, UNICEF, and Gavi, a global vaccine alliance, have allocated 18 million doses of RTS,S to 12 African countries for 2023-2025. Additionally, the Serum Institute of India, responsible for manufacturing the R21 vaccine, has committed to producing 100 million doses annually. The Institute has been a pivotal partner in supporting Oxford and was the primary funder of the Phase III clinical trial.
While climate change poses concerns about increased malaria transmission by mosquitoes, the WHO emphasizes that there is no evidence suggesting one vaccine is superior to the other, as they have not been subjected to head-to-head trials.
Notably, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation withdrew direct financial support for RTS,S last year, citing lower efficacy than desired. Public health experts herald the breakthrough but stress the need for continued funding and support to ensure that both vaccines reach children in need expeditiously.
Gareth Jenkins, Executive Director of Advocacy and Strategy at Malaria No More UK, emphasized the importance of sustained commitment, stating, “Malaria financing globally is far from where it needs to be, and annual deaths from malaria rose during the pandemic and are still above pre-pandemic levels, so we cannot afford to be complacent as new tools are developed.”