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Malaria vaccine from Oxford Covid-19 team offers new hope

14th May 2021
Malaria vaccine from Oxford Covid-19 team offers new hope

Malaria vaccine. (Courtesy of Tpsdave/Flickr)

Although the news is dominated at the moment by Covid-19 vaccines, another vaccine story has been reported recently that could herald another significant breakthrough in vaccine history.

The Oxford team who developed the Covid-19 vaccine in the UK, have recently announced encouraging results from a malaria vaccine trial in Burkina Faso. Results from the trial showed the vaccine was 77 per cent effective in preventing malaria infections in children. This is the highest ever level of efficacy reported in a malarial vaccine trial and offers hope for finally controlling the disease.

Further trials in other locations across Africa are now planned. Malaria kills more than 400,000 people a year, mostly children in sub-Saharan Africa. The disease is caused by parasites that are transmitted to people through mosquito bites. Although malaria is preventable and curable, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there were 229 million cases worldwide in 2019 and 409,000 deaths.

Symptoms of malaria include fever, headaches and chills and, without treatment, can progress quickly to severe illness and often death.

Despite many years of research and many clinical trials, an effective vaccine has never been found. The WHO set a target of 75 per cent efficacy by 2030 for a malaria vaccine, and the new vaccine is the first to achieve that level. If further trials prove it to be this effective it could have a major health impact on areas where malaria is endemic.

The most effective malaria vaccine to date had only shown 55 per cent efficacy in trials on African children.
In the study 450 participants, aged between 5 months and 17 months, were split into three groups, with the first two groups receiving either a low dose or a high dose of the vaccine candidate.

The third group received a rabies vaccination as the control group. Doses were administered from early May 2019 to early August 2019, largely prior to the peak malaria season. The participants were followed up for 12 months and the study reported that the high dose had an efficacy of 77 per cent, with 71 per cent in the lower-dose group. Researchers did not note any serious adverse events related to the vaccine. Larger trials in nearly 5,000 children between the ages of five months and three years will now be conducted across four African countries to confirm the findings. Results are expected to be reported next year.

If further trials show the vaccine to be effective it is hoped it can be approved for use within the next two years. After the speed at which Covid-19 vaccines have been developed and authorised for use, the Oxford team is hoping the need for a malarial vaccine will mean it can be approved quickly. The team has partnered with the Serum Institute of India, to manufacture at least 200 million doses annually in the coming years, if the vaccine is authorised.

Charlemagne Ouedraogo, Minister of Health in Burkina Faso, said: “Malaria is one of the leading causes of childhood mortality in Africa. We have been supporting trials of a range of new vaccine candidates in Burkina Faso and these new data show that licensure of a very useful new malaria vaccine could well happen in the coming years.”

Rachel Kayani, freelance writer

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