2nd May 2021

Could Malaria Become a Problem of the Past?

The R21/Matrix-M vaccine has been found to have aa 77% efficacy rate, and could save millions of lives
Could Malaria Become a Problem of the Past?
Photo: Jim Gathany, CDC @ Flickr

An international team of researchers, including those from the University of Oxford and the Clinical Research Unit of Nanoro (CRUN), have released details of their new vaccine against malaria. Early trials of the new R21/Matrix-M vaccine have suggested a 77% efficacy rate in children.

The new vaccine, which is produced by the Serum Institute of India Private Ltd. with contributions by Novavax Inc., is exciting the global community. This is due to its high efficacy rate and its potential for large-scale manufacturing at a relatively low cost.

Beginning in 2019, double-blind trials studied 450 children from the area of Nanoro, Burkino Faso. The participants were all between the ages of 5-17 months and were given four injections of the vaccine. No significant side effects were reported after 12 months.

What is malaria?

Malaria is a disease spread by parasite-infected mosquitoes and is characterised by fever, headaches, and chills. Without treatment, it is often fatal.

Whilst it is both curable and preventable, the cost of treatment, medication, and mosquito nets is often unmanageable for the individuals and governments of the countries it most affects. In addition, malaria significantly impacts these countries financially, which contributes to a devastating vicious cycle.

According to UNICEF, a child under five dies of malaria dies every two minutes. This means that by the time you finish reading this article, another child will be lost forever. The disease has caused at least four times as many deaths as coronavirus in Africa this year, and yet it has taken many decades for an effective vaccine to be produced.

How does R21 compare to other vaccines?

Professor Adrian Hill, who leads the Oxford team at the Jenner Institute, has reported that the malarial research contributed significantly to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. However, this vaccine is much more complicated, as preventing malaria requires far more antigens.

Antigens are molecules that spark the body’s immune response, helping it to fight the disease. The COVID vaccine contains twelve, whilst the R21 vaccine contains over 5000. The complexity of the malarial parasite has been one of the most significant hindrances to past vaccine research.

What’s next?

Despite the encouraging results, the sample size of the trial was small. Plans are currently underway to expand the trials to 4800 children from 5 to 36 months across four African countries.

If successful, the effect that the vaccine would have is almost unimaginable. In 2019 alone, malaria caused an estimated 229 million clinical episodes and about 409,000 deaths. In the future, the vaccine could save millions of people, and completely change daily life in the predominantly poorer countries that malaria affects.

A revolution in global health is on the horizon.

Emma Hattersley

Emma Hattersley

Emma Hattersley is a third year physics student at the University of Manchester. Alongside writing about science, she enjoys music, baking and terrible, made-for-tv films.

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