A malaria vaccine from the Oxford institute behind the coronavirus jab is 77 per cent effective at stopping infection, in results that suggest it could be a game changer in defeating the illness.
The new study, from clinical trials of 450 children, is published as the vaccine enters larger-scale human trials to test for rarer side-effects.
If safety is assured, health authorities say that it will become the key weapon in eliminating the disease, which is responsible for half a million deaths a year, mostly in children.
Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute in Oxford, said that the results were thrilling. Despite decades of research there is only one other vaccine against malaria and it is about 36 per cent effective.
Hill said it was imperative that regulators treated the vaccine with the same urgency as those against Covid-19. “Malaria is a public health emergency. More people died from malaria last year in Africa than Covid by a factor of at least four,” he said.
Oxford has a commitment from the Serum Institute of India, the world’s biggest vaccine manufacturer, to make 200 million doses of the vaccine a year at a cost of about £2 per dose.
Under usual protocols, it would be several years before the vaccine would be approved for general use. Hill said that assuming that by the end of this year the larger trials, already under way, confirmed the efficacy and safety of the vaccine, there should be moves to get it out at scale by the start of 2023, with continued surveillance of those receiving the doses.
Hill said: “What we’re banging the table about is, why does a Covid vaccine get emergency use authorisation in weeks in Africa when we, with [a] much greater period of data, go through the normal channels?
“We don’t want to spend five years getting this licensed while at least one and a half million African kids die.”
The trial, reported in The Lancet, involved children in Burkina Faso, where malaria is prevalent. Of the 147 given a placebo, 105 contracted malaria. In the 292 given either a high or low dose of the vaccine, 81 contracted the disease. This meant that the vaccine reached the goal set by the World Health Organisation of 75 per cent efficacy.
Colin Sutherland, co-director of the Malaria Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said the results exceeded his expectations, although he cautioned that safety data from larger trials was needed.
“This looks like a very exciting prospect — if efficacy of 75 per cent is maintained with a good safety profile . . . then this is likely to save many lives,” he said.
Sutherland said such work was under threat owing to cuts in the overseas development budget. “This is exactly the kind of research that the UK government has drastically and precipitously cut. Cutting global health funding is stupid,” he said.
If the vaccine is approved, it would initially be given to children, who are most at risk. After that, richer countries such as Thailand may think it worthwhile to vaccinate the entire population as part of a process of elimination.
Finally, the goal of non-governmental organisations would be to eliminate the disease in Africa itself, using the vaccine in conjunction with other public health measures.
Gareth Jenkins, director of advocacy at the charity Malaria No More, said the vaccine “would be an incredibly powerful extra tool” in the global fight to eradicate the disease. He said that it also showed the value of British research into tropical diseases and why they needed funding.
“We need to keep up with the investment in research, to allow for these sorts of massive steps forward,” Jenkins said.
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