In the latest development that is anticipated to be a big relief for African countries, a cheaper and highly effective malaria vaccine has been recommended for use by the World Health Organization (WHO). The R21/Matrix-M vaccine has been developed by the University of Oxford in association with Serum Institute of India.
A breakthrough achievement, it is only the second malaria vaccine that has been recommended by the WHO. The vaccine also holds the distinction of becoming the first vaccine to meet the WHO’s target of 75% efficacy.
The R21/Matrix-M costs $2-4 (£1.65 to £3.30) per dose and four doses are needed per person. The Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world is poised to manufacture over 100 million doses a year and plans to jack up the production to 200 million doses a year.
A mosquito-borne disease, Malaria mainly takes the lives of babies and infants. According to WHO, In 2021 alone, malaria claimed the lives of 619,000 people, and 247 million new cases were reported. The more startling revelation is that 96% of the malaria deaths worldwide were reported in Africa.
While commenting on the new vaccine development, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the WHO said that he used to dream of the day we would have a safe and effective vaccine against malaria and added that now we have two. The WHO chief expressed hope that the new vaccine is expected to protect more children faster and bring us closer to the vision of a malaria-free future.
Tedros further said that the vaccine is now being reviewed by the WHO for prequalification. Since it has received the approval, GAVI, the global vaccine alliance, and Children’s Fund UNICEF will now be able to buy the vaccine from manufacturers. By early 2024, the vaccine will be launched in African countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, and Nigeria.
Tedros added that in other countries, it will be available in mid-2024. He also said that it was based on the advice of the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) and the Malaria Policy Advisory Group (MPAG) that WHO approved the new malaria vaccine.
The first malaria vaccine, RTS, S, developed by GSK was recommended for use by the WHO back in 2021. Owing to the huge demand for the vaccine, last July, it was decided to supply a total of 18 million doses of RTS, S/AS01 to 12 African countries for the 2023–2025 period.
In human beings, it is a complex parasite that causes malaria, which is spread by the bite of blood-sucking mosquitoes. Much more sophisticated than a virus, the parasite hides from the human immune system by shape-shifting constantly inside the body. Due to that reason, it becomes tough to build up immunity naturally when infected with malaria, and also difficult to develop a vaccine against the disease.
Studies show that the R21 vaccine is 75% effective at preventing malaria in areas where the disease is seasonal. According to the WHO, when it comes to effectiveness, both vaccines were very similar and there is no evidence to prove that one is superior to the other.
However, R21 – the Oxford University vaccine has the upper hand in terms of manufacturing at scale. Though both vaccines use similar technologies and target the same stage of the lifecycle of the malaria parasite, it is relatively easy to manufacture the Oxford vaccine as only a small dose is required and it uses a simpler adjuvant ( It is a chemical used in the vaccine that boosts the immune system into action).
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