On October 6, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced its “historic” approval of a malaria vaccine.
Considering that malaria has been one of the most prevalent diseases in the world, with 229 million cases recorded globally every year, 94 per cent of these cases being recorded in Africa, it is remarkable that we have arrived at this epoch moment.
Malaria is caused by the malaria parasite transmitted through an infected mosquito bite. Before now, it has been impossible to develop a vaccine for the disease because there are about 100 types of malaria parasites, all with a complex life cycle.
This vaccine, RTS, S/ASO1 (RTS,S), with the brand name Mosquirix, which has been in development since the 1980s, targets only the most deadly of these parasites, the plasmodium falciparum, which is most rampant in Africa and aims to intercept it in the sporozoite form ( between being bitten by a mosquito and the parasite getting to the liver). It was developed by PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative and GlaxoSmithKline with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and is the first of about a dozen other vaccine candidates presently in development.
Kudos must be given to the team of scientists that doggedly fought to develop this vaccine which after trials on about 800, 000 persons in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi returned with a 40 per cent efficacy. They have managed to produce a vaccine that is cost-effective, which is very important, considering the economic status of countries worst affected by malaria. They have also developed a vaccine that is safe and has no negative interaction with other vaccines children are required to take.
While this vaccine could prevent four in 10 cases of malaria, or three in 10 severe cases, it is still a significant development that paves the way for more potent vaccines in the future.
Annually, malaria kills about 400,000 people. In 2019 alone, it killed 260,000 people in Africa. It is therefore not surprising that news of this vaccine being approved for rollout has generated massive excitement on the continent.
While this excitement is still ongoing, the health authorities in Nigeria must strategize on how to quickly adopt the vaccine as part of the national malaria control strategy.
Following the approval of this vaccine, the global health communities will now have to make funding decisions for the vaccine rollout. This is an important phase considering that the countries in the malaria belt of the world are mostly poor. The federal government must position Nigeria to access this vaccine as soon as it becomes available and ensure its quick and effective distribution across the country.
But beyond that, Nigeria should explore options of buying the patent so they could produce the vaccine in the country. This will ensure the easy availability of the vaccine going forward. Senegal for instance is already being considered by BioNTech, as a manufacturing hub for mRNA vaccines, not only for COVID-19 but for malaria and tuberculosis as well.
Situating a vaccine hub in Senegal will no doubt help in making these vaccines more accessible on the continent and the new African Medicines Agency, under the African Union, launching in November with the goal of improving safety regulation of medical products on the continent could be a significant body that will help coordinate the response to public health concerns.
The advantages of this sort of partnership will be enormous. It will not only help make these vaccines more affordable, but will also create jobs and research opportunities for the country and boost the capacity of resident scientists and researchers. It will also boost the many research institutes in the country. But before this can happen, the country must be in a stable condition to attract this kind of investment. Therefore, the government must make the enabling policies and create a conducive environment for this development.
We urge the federal government to actively key into this kind of partnership that will boost the chances of survival of Nigerians, create job opportunities, provide an economic boost and help develop the country’s research capacity to lead the way in the future development of other vaccines and scientific breakthroughs. Anything to aid eradication of malaria must be encouraged.