A malaria vaccine developed by scientists at Oxford University’s Jenner Institute has been shown to be highly effective in trials in Africa. Every year, 400,000 people worldwide die from the disease, mainly children. Between 300 and 600 million people on our planet are infected with the virus, and the medicines for the disease are getting worse. So the vaccine is a godsend. And it actually comes from the makers of the AstraZeneca vaccine.
Every 30 seconds, a child under the age of five dies of malaria – or 3,000 a day. Last year, more than 200 million new cases of the disease were recorded, hitting an area home to 40 percent of the world’s population. A vaccine that works is therefore very good news.
The Oxford researchers, who work with the Indian Serum Institute and the American vaccine manufacturer Novavax, have already started a phase 3 trial to test the vaccine in a larger population. The existing participants also received a booster shot.
Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute in Oxford, which helped develop the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, co-authored the draft paper containing the R21 study data. He said the results supported the high expectations of the vaccine.
Malaria vaccine hunt for centuries
The hunt for a malaria vaccine has been going on for nearly a century. The Mosquirix vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline has undergone lengthy clinical trials but is only partially effective, preventing 39 percent of malaria cases and only 29 percent of severe malaria cases in small children.
The Oxford vaccine, called R21, is the first vaccine to meet the WHO goal of 75 percent efficacy against the mosquito-borne parasite disease. It achieved an effectiveness of 77 percent.
The Jenner Institute will likely ask regulatory authorities in Europe or the UK for scientific advice on the vaccine and then seek approval from the World Health Organization for use in Africa.
125 million tourists annually travel in areas with malaria
The vaccine will be manufactured on a large scale and at a low cost, say the researchers, who have signed a deal with the Serum Institute of India, which is involved in the production of the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine.
The Serum Institute has had to delay delivery of the Covid vaccine to the rest of the world due to the massive increase in the number of cases in India, but has pledged to deliver 200 million doses a year of the malaria vaccine if licensed .
According to the World Health Organization, there were more than 200 million new cases last year. More than 400,000 of those people died from the disease, mostly small children. And those are conservative estimates: estimates are circulating at other health organizations of between 350 and 550 million cases.
The WHO figures also do not take into account the mortality of unborn babies in mothers who become infected. In tropical Africa alone, there are more than 200,000 annually. 20 percent of child mortality in Africa can be attributed to malaria.
Even in Europe, around 10,000 cases still crop up every year. But there is also this: every year 125 million tourists from Western countries travel to countries where malaria is prevalent. Now about 30,000 of them come back with the disease.
Existing medicines are working worse and worse
Malaria or swamp fever is an infectious disease caused by parasites in malaria mosquitoes. If not treated promptly with effective drugs, the disease often results in death.
There are various medicines for malaria, and new products are regularly added. This is also necessary, because the parasite has a strong capacity to develop resistance.
For a long time, the parasites could be controlled with chloroquine, a relatively inexpensive drug derived from quinine that kills the parasites in the red blood cells. Over the years, various forms of malaria – the most common – have become resistant to chloroquine.
Because chloroquine no longer works, mefloquine (Lariam) is now prescribed. However, this drug causes serious side effects in quite a few people, including of a psychiatric nature, which can last for a long time.
The daily intake of atovaquone plus proguanil (Malarone), another option, can cause side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain or headache.
Incidentally, it is a misconception that if you take those pills you are 100 percent protected against malaria. The pills are also not a vaccine: they are simply the medicine against malaria that you take preventively.
A newer drug is a combination therapy based on artemisinin. This treatment is more expensive, but it worked. Until recently. Artemisinin is the active ingredient of Artemisia annua or Qing Hao, a Chinese herbal tea that has been used in China for more than two millennia to cure malaria and hemorrhoids.
Artemisinin has become the standard treatment where malaria is endemic. Artemether lumefantrine is the name of the medicine that was made from it. However, resistance was first identified in western Cambodia in 2005. Since then, the artemisinin-resistant malaria parasite has started to spread.