World’s first malaria vaccine close to full approval

24 Jul 2015

GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is now incredibly close to releasing the world’s first-ever vaccine for malaria, a disease that kills over half a million people a year.

The European Medicines Agency (the regulatory group in the EU) has given a green light to GSK’s Mosquirix (RTS,S) to be given as a vaccine to young children – “together with established antimalarial interventions”.

The next stage is the World Health Organisation (WHO), which will pass judgement on the jab in a few months.

The drug is targeted at children between 5-17 months, where trials showed it working around half the time, with a lower success rate for children both younger and older.

Mosquirix targets a particular type of malaria (plasmodium falciparum) which is found almost exclusively in sub-Saharan Africa. It has not been shown to be useful for the predominantly Asian plasmodium vivax malaria parasite.

Positives and negatives

It’s not all good news though, with Mosquirix hardly perfect.

“Unlike polio or smallpox vaccines, which offer life-long high-level protection from the diseases they are designed to prevent,” explained Reuters recently, “Mosquirix gives only partial protection against malaria, and even that dwindles within a few years.”

Pedro Alonso, director of the World Health Organization’s Global Malaria Programme, explained that to get good results children would need four doses over 18 months.

“In the absence of four doses, the efficacy disappears and no significant protection is documented,” he said. “It’s challenging in terms of understanding how it would best add value.”

Only part of the fix

“While RTS,S on its own is not the complete answer to malaria, its use alongside those interventions currently available, such as bed nets and insecticides, would provide a very meaningful contribution to controlling the impact of malaria on children in those African communities that need it the most,” said Andrew Witty, GSK’s chief executive.

His company has invested US$365m to date in the drug, with another US$250m expected until the full project is completed.

The next stage of the process to get the drug approved completely is to go before two independent WHO advisory groups – this should happen before the end of the year. Then countries will independently rule whether it can be used in their jurisdiction.

The drug works by triggering the body’s immune system to defend against the strand of malaria when it first enters the human host’s bloodstream “and/or when the parasite infects liver cells”.

Main image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic