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The First Malaria Vaccine Could Be Released Soon

The vaccine isn’t as effective as hoped however, and needs several more approvals

Malaria infected blood cells (blue) (Ed Uthman via Flickr (CC BY 2.0))
smithsonian.com

Scientists and public health officials have made great strides against malaria, but the mosquito-borne disease still kills one child living in Africa every minute, according to the World Health Organization. So news that the first malaria vaccine in the world just passed a major regulatory hurdle should be greeted with excitement. Unfortunately, some controversy tempers the announcement.

The vaccine, called RTS,S or Mosquirix, was developed by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and supported by some funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. This week, the European equivalent of America’s Food and Drug Administration, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) recommended the vaccine as safe and effective to use for at-risk babies in Africa, reports Kate Kelland for Reuters

Next, the WHO will decide whether to also give their recommendation on where and when it should be used. Any country hoping to use it would then be able to decide if they want to give the OK. 

But those steps could be complicated by the fact that Mosquirix isn’t as effective as expected. For Science, Leslie Roberts reports:

In a large phase III trial, it reduced episodes of malaria by about one-third in young children in sub-Saharan Africa. That’s well under the 50% efficacy expected at the beginning of the trial, and a far cry from the 95% efficacy vaccine makers dream of, leaving scientists and policymakers asking: How good is good enough?

In addition, the vaccine needs to be administered in three doses to babies. And over time, the vaccine grows less effective and needs a booster, reports Loren Grush for The Verge. She writes, "Some scientists are concerned that the potential costs associated with such a complex and somewhat ineffective vaccine may outweigh the benefits."

Still, the danger of malaria is great enough that even mediocre vaccine could help. The EMA decided that the vaccine’s benefits outweigh the risks. Mosquirix is farther ahead in the process than any other vaccines, and GlaxoSmithKline is already working on a second generation version. 

“With every vaccine of course you hope for 100% protection,” a GlaxoSmithKline scientist, Moncef Slaoui, who has worked on the vaccine for the past 30 years, tells Roberts. "If your child has three cases of severe malaria a year instead of six, it will change their lives," he says. 

If the process goes smoothly for the vaccine, the first doses could be delivered to babies in 2017.

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