WHO recommends new malaria vaccine developed by Oxford

3 Oct 2023

Image: © panyawat/Stock.adobe.com

Ongoing clinical trials and studies have shown the R21/Matrix-M vaccine developed at the University of Oxford to reduce the incidence of malaria by up to 75pc.

A new malaria vaccine that has shown high efficacy and can be rolled out at scale has been recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Developed at the University of Oxford, the R21/Matrix-M vaccine is only the second malaria vaccine to be recommended by WHO. The first one, called RTS,S and developed by pharma giant GSK, was given a WHO recommendation two years ago.

“Both vaccines are shown to be safe and effective in preventing malaria in children and, when implemented broadly, are expected to have high public health impact,” WHO wrote in its announcement yesterday (2 October).

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year. Children and pregnant women are at high risk of severe infection. According to WHO stats, there were an estimated 247 million cases of malaria worldwide in 2021, with 619,000 deaths.

Moreover, Africa is home to 95pc of all malaria cases and 96pc of all malaria-related deaths. Children under five accounted for about 80pc of all malaria deaths in Africa.

Demand for a vaccine, therefore, is huge. And while WHO said both the available vaccines have similar efficacy, the Oxford one has a better chance of being rolled out at scale because it is cheaper ($2 to $4 per dose) and easier to produce.

“As a malaria researcher, I used to dream of the day we would have a safe and effective vaccine against malaria. Now we have two,” said WHO director-general Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus.

“Demand for the RTS,S vaccine far exceeds supply, so this second vaccine is a vital additional tool to protect more children faster, and to bring us closer to our vision of a malaria-free future.”

WHO’s recommendation is based on evidence from an ongoing R21 vaccine clinical trial and other studies, which have shown that the vaccine reduces symptomatic cases of malaria by 75pc during the 12 months following a series of three doses.

A fourth dose given a year after the third was shown to maintain efficacy. WHO said this high efficacy is similar to that of the RTS,S when the latter is given seasonally.

Next steps for the R21 vaccine include completing the ongoing WHO prequalification which would enable international procurement of the vaccine for broader roll-out.

“This second vaccine holds real potential to close the huge demand-and-supply gap,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa.

“Delivered to scale and rolled out widely, the two vaccines can help bolster malaria prevention and control efforts, and save hundreds of thousands of young lives in Africa from this deadly disease.”

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Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic