Malawi has launched the world’s first malaria vaccine trial today in a pilot programme. Ghana and Kenya will introduce the vaccine in the coming weeks.
The vaccine RTS,S will be made available to children up to 2 years of age in 3 doses given between 5 and 9 months of age and the fourth dose at the 2nd birthday.
Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya were selected from among 10 African countries following a request by WHO for expressions of interest. These qualified because they had well-functioning malaria and immunization programmes, as well as areas with moderate to high malaria transmission.
“The malaria vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO Director-General.
Dr. Ghebreyesus said while there are many gains from bed nets and other measures to control malaria in the last 15 years progress has stalled and even reversed in some areas.
Thus the vaccine is a complementary malaria control tool – to be added to the WHO-recommended measures for malaria prevention, including the routine use of insecticide-treated bed nets, indoor spraying with insecticides, and the timely use of malaria testing and treatment.
“We need new solutions to get the malaria response back on track, and this vaccine gives us a promising tool to get there,” said Dr. Ghebreyesus.
Malaria is one of the world’s leading killers, killing one child every two minutes. Most of these deaths are in Africa, where more than 250,000 children die from malaria every year. Worldwide, malaria kills 435 000 people a year, most of them children.
The RTS,S vaccine has demonstrated that it can significantly reduce malaria in children. In clinical trials, the vaccine was found to prevent approximately 4 in 10 malaria cases, including 3 in 10 cases of life-threatening severe malaria.
“We know the power of vaccines to prevent killer diseases and reach children, including those who may not have immediate access to the doctors, nurses and health facilities,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.
“To step up the fight against malaria, we need every available tool. If this pilot shows that RTS,S is a cost-effective tool against malaria, it will help us save more children’s lives,” said Peter Sands, Executive Director of the Global Fund.
The pilot programme is designed to generate evidence and experience to inform WHO policy recommendations on the broader use of the RTS,S malaria vaccine.
“These pilots will be crucial to determine the part this vaccine could play in reducing the burden this disease continues to place on the world’s poorest countries,” Dr. Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi.
GSK, the vaccine developer and manufacturer is donating up to 10 million vaccine doses for this pilot.
It aims to reach about 360,000 children per year across the three countries and will look at reductions in child deaths; vaccine uptake, including whether parents bring their children on time for the four required doses; and vaccine safety in the context of routine use.
Ministries of health will determine where the vaccine will be given; they will focus on areas with moderate-to-high malaria transmission, where the vaccine can have the greatest impact.
“This novel tool is the result of GSK employees collaborating with their partners, applying the latest in vaccine science to contribute to the fight against malaria,” said Dr. Thomas Breuer, Chief Medical Officer of GSK Vaccines.
He said they look forward to the results of the pilot, and in parallel, working with WHO and PATH to secure the vaccine’s sustained global health impact in the future.
Financing for the pilot programme has been mobilized through collaborations between Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria; and Unitaid. Additionally, WHO, PATH and GSK are providing in-kind contributions.
“The malaria vaccine is a shining example of the kind of inter-agency coordination that we need. We look forward to learning how the vaccine can be integrated for greatest impact into our work,” said Lelio Marmora, Executive Director of Unitaid.