Hope as malaria jab passes preliminary trials

An anti-malaria vaccine developed by Oxford University has shown promise after a successful trial in Burkina Faso.

Preliminary results from the experimental malaria vaccine developed at the university’s Jenner Institute have shown it has an efficacy of 70 percent.

A team of researchers from the University of Oxford have been working on a novel malaria vaccine named R21 for several years now.

It is the Matrix-M version of the vaccine that has shown promise after the Burkina Faso trials.

The team’s research also played a pivotal role in the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

Results from the trial that involved 450 children were been published in the April 24, 2021 medical journal Science Translational Medicine.

In a published study pre-print, scientists have announced that the vaccine showed an efficacy of 77 per cent in its preliminary human trials.

Malaria has long been the scourge of the continent, killing an estimated 20,000 people a year in Kenya alone.

According to World Health Organization (WHO) data, at least 409,000 people died of malaria in Africa in 2019.

WHO statistics indicate that the continent bears an estimated 90 percent of the global malaria burden.

The research team conducted the study in two clinical research centres located in Burkina Faso, a West African country with a country with a high malaria burden.

In pursuit of the results, scientists conducted the double-blind, phase 2 trials that were, randomized, and controlled to test the vaccine on 450 participants aged between 5 and 17 months.

Study participants were divided into three groups. The first two groups received a low and a high dose of the vaccine, where Matrix-M was the adjuvant used.

The third or the control group received a rabies vaccine but were not told what it was for.

Doses mostly were administered before the peak malaria season, as from from early May 2019 to early August 2019.

After 12 months of follow-up, study results showed a vaccine efficacy of 77 per cent in the higher-dose and 71 per cent in the lower dose group.

No serious adverse events related to the vaccine were noted.

Encouraged by the results, the scientists extended the Phase 2b trial with a booster vaccination administered just before the next malaria season in the following year.

Prof Adrian Hill, who serves as Professor of Vaccinology at the University of Oxford, said the results were a milestone that had enabled the achievement of a vaccine that reaches WHO-recommended efficacy levels.

“These new results support our high expectations for the potential of this vaccine, which we believe is the first to reach the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) goal of a vaccine for malaria with at least 75 per cent efficacy,” said Prof Hill, who is the research project lead.

Speaking in Nairobi during the commemoration of World Malaria Day on April 25, 2021, Cabinet Administrative Secretary (CAS) Dr Rashid Aman said the RTSS malaria vaccine that had been administered to at least 190,000 children in the eight counties had so far shown good results.

The vaccine developed by the Glaxo Smithkline (GSK) pharmaceutical firm has been administered to children in Homa Bay, Vihiga, Migori, Kisumu,Busia, Bungoma, Vihiga and Kakamega  in a program that kicked off in September 2019.

“Since September 2019, more than 190,000 children have received at least selected areas of Kenya have received at least one dose of through routine childhood vaccinations. The phased introduction of the malaria vaccine in Kenya as well as Malawi and and Ghana has now reached a marked milestone with children now getting their fourth dose of the vaccine,” Dr Aman said.

Addressing the press on April 25, 2021, Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI) researcher and malaria expert Dr Benhard Ogutu said the vaccine had shown encouraging results following the small Burkina Faso trial.

“Following encouraging results on animal test subjects, the malaria vaccine has shown now encouraging results in a small trial in Burkina Faso. The research team then tested it in low doses on Burkinabe children and the results were basically a confirmation of what the animal test results showed,” said Dr Ogutu.

According to the researcher, the trial findings have opened the way to larger trials across diverse malaria zones across the continent.

“This is result that has now emboldened the researchers to make plans for a roll-out of three larger trials in other malaria prone areas on the continent to see whether the results will maintain a consistent or even better pattern,” said Dr Ogutu.

“With the commitment by our commercial partner, the Serum Institute of India, to manufacture at least 200 million doses annually in the coming years, the vaccine has the potential to have a major public health impact if a license is achieved,” said Prof Hill said.

The researchers, in collaboration with Serum Institute of India Private Ltd, and Novavax Inc, have now started recruitment for a Phase 3 trial to assess large-scale safety and efficacy in 4,800 children, aged 5-36 months, across four African countries.

Dr Ogutu however refused to be drawn into an overly positive outlook on the development of a vaccine soon. He voiced caution even as the trials go forward to other disease zones on the continent.

“Despite the enormous interest and goodwill around the vaccine which we have been working towards, we still have a few more years of clinical trials, research and safety testing before we can expect a second generation. On the prospect of having a certified vaccine being launched soon, it’s best that you hold your horses for now,” he said.

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