A new malaria vaccine potentially has the opportunity to save millions of lives. However, optimism cannot control the increasing transmission of malaria.
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The World Health Organization made a historic announcement in late 2021: recommending a broad rollout of a malaria vaccine, hoping to save millions in the process. Just two years later, the agency has recommended a second, cheaper vaccine.
Called R21/Matrix M, the vaccine showed 75 percent efficacy over 12 months, according to a clinical trial. While the efficacy of booster doses remains to be monitored, vaccine makers are optimistic — looking to churn out upwards of 100 million R21 doses every year.
Ancient records from Mesopotamia and China dating back as far as 2,700 BC hold some records of malarial fevers. The disease was an endemic one — not appearing everywhere, but devastating on a localized level. The condition has since gallivanted across the world.
Malaria is by the Plasmodium protozoan, but it’s the female Anopheles mosquitoes that serve as their flag bearer. As the mosquito injects spores of these parasites into a human, they rapidly invade the liver cells — causing recurring fevers among other symptoms.
Previously considered to be eliminated from the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported four locally transmitted cases of malaria in Florida and Texas earlier this year — a first in 20 years.
First break: Decades of public health efforts have driven malaria-related death rates down significantly. Approval of the first vaccine for malaria was a landmark — inoculating children in at-risk regions.
The vaccine is delivered in four doses, which raises concerns about how useful it could be in the real world, noted . Meanwhile, the clinical trials did not directly measure whether the vaccines were protective against death, which has led to questionable efficacy, pointed out the .
The estimated annual number of deaths from malaria globally between 1990 and 2019. Data: IHME, Global Burden of Disease (2019)
Graphic: Our World in Data
A second malaria vaccine — called R21/Matrix M — developed by the University of Oxford is expected to become available in mid-2024. It will cost $2-4 per dose, about half of what RTS,S costs.
While the new vaccine could be world-changing, experts point out potential issues with supply and quality control. With nearly 250 million malaria cases every year, the production may not be fast enough to keep up with the increasing transmission of malaria.