A vaccine against malaria could be introduced in the world’s worst-hit countries in 2015, after the latest trial of a treatment produced by Britain’s biggest drug company reduced the number of cases of the disease experienced by babies. The results of trials published on Tuesday in Durban, South Africa, showed that the RTS,S vaccine developed by GlaxoSmithKline nearly halved the cases of malaria experienced by children aged between five and seven months and cut the number of cases in babies aged 6 to 12 weeks by a quarter.
The treatment’s protection lasted for 18 months, although it waned slightly over time, and while that is not the sort of efficacy that parents in Europe or the US are used to getting in the vaccines given to their children, the malaria vaccine would make a significant difference to the outlook for those in areas where the tropical disease is rife. Every year, around 660,000 people die from malaria, most of them small children under the age of five. There are about 219m cases of the disease a year worldwide, and children who survive the serious illness can suffer damage to their health and development in their lifetime afterwards.
Inventing a malaria vaccine has involved breaking new medical ground. This is the first-ever vaccine against a parasite. There are other novel vaccines in development, such as one from the US that involves injecting patients with weakened parasites. GSK says the vaccine will be not-for-profit – but it will add 5% to the cost price which will go towards further research and development work on tropical diseases.
The pharmaceutical giant has spent $350m (£218m) on the vaccine so far and expects to invest $260m more before it reaches children. A team of 40 people will be needed to process the 1m pages of paperwork out of the many trials, which were held in seven Africa countries in different age groups. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also put in about $200m.
The dossier will go to the European Medical Agency next year and if it gets its licence, will go to the World Health Organisation for approval. It is expected that the donor-funded GAVI – the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation – will eventually pick up the bill for vaccine programmes as the treatment is deployed in malarial countries.
The treatment was developed with the US-based non-profit PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative. David Kaslow, vice president, product development at PATH, said the limited efficacy of the vaccine must be put in context. There has been great progress with bed nets and other technical measures, “yet there is still a huge disease burden out there”, he said. In that context, the vaccine has “a potentially significant public health impact”. During the trials, he pointed out, there were 941 cases of malaria averted for every 1,000 children vaccinated.