The World Health Organization granted prequalification to the R21/Matrix-M malaria vaccine on December 21, 2023, marking the second instance of the WHO prequalifying a malaria vaccine. A second approved vaccine will increase supply and alleviate demand for the valuable preventatives, especially in developing countries where malaria is common.
Decades Of Effort
Research into malaria vaccines dates back to the 1960s, according to a report by Professor Sir Adrian V. S. Hill. However, potential vaccine candidates did not emerge until the 1980s. SPf66, a Colombian vaccine, was tested in South America, Asia, and Africa in the 1990s but was found ineffective, and researchers turned to other, more promising search avenues, namely RTS,S. Developed by Belgian pharmaceutical company SmithKline Beecham Biologicals and the American Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, RTS,S began human trials in 1997, proving itself highly effective in preventing malaria in semi-immune adults.
Over the next two decades, RTS,S, marketed as Mosquirix, would be tested on children, to a lesser effect than on adults. The WHO recommended it in 2022, making it the first-ever malaria vaccine to receive the organization’s approval. Since its approval, 1.5 million children in East and West Africa have received Mosquirix vaccinations, with millions more doses to come in even more countries across the continent.
The creation of a malaria vaccine brought tremendous international demand due to the wide range of the malaria parasite, and manufacturers of Mosquirix were unable to keep up. Scientists have thus researched new, more effective malaria vaccines to increase the critically low supply, and R21/Matrix-M is the first of these avenues of research to bear fruit.
A New Option For Immunization
Researchers from Oxford University, Burkina Faso, and the United States have worked together to develop the vaccine since at least 2019, when it began trials on human patients. A second round of testing in 2021 showed that R21/Matrix-M has a 75 percent efficacy rate after 12 months, 20 percent higher than the first malaria vaccine, RTS,S. It is the most effective malaria vaccine to date.
World health authorities plan to deploy R21/Matrix-M en masse in developing countries; the Serum Institute of India hopes to begin production of 100 million doses per year, ramping up to double that amount over the next few years. Other preventative measures, such as nets treated with insecticide, will be deployed alongside the vaccine to maximize malaria prevention efficacy. The first three countries to license the new vaccine are Ghana, Nigeria, and Burkina Faso, and trials on children occurred in Mali, Kenya, and Tanzania from 2022-23.
The Future of Malaria Prevention
The global spread of malaria requires an equally global effort to suppress the disease and its vectors, something the WHO’s Dr. Kate O’Brien called “a relentless commitment.” The advent of a new, mass-producible vaccine has the potential to save countless millions of young lives across the developing world.
Image credits: CDC via Wikipedia, AFP via Getty Images
Edited by: Matsoarelo Makuke
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