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- WHO recommends a new malaria vaccine, R21/Matrix-M, for children's immunization.
- The second such vaccine, expected to significantly bolster supply and save countless lives in Africa.
- A monumental step towards a malaria-free future, says WHO.
A monumental step
The World Health Organization (WHO) recently endorsed a new vaccine, R21/Matrix-M, aimed at preventing malaria among children.
This recommendation came on the heels of extensive deliberations by the WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization and the Malaria Policy Advisory Group during their biannual meeting held in late September1.
The new vaccine, R21, is the second of its kind to receive WHO's approval, following the RTS,S/AS01 vaccine, which was recommended in 2021.
Both vaccines have exhibited significant efficacy in preventing malaria in children, a population severely impacted by this mosquito-borne disease, particularly in the African region where nearly half a million children succumb to malaria annually1.
Bridging the supply gap
The demand for malaria vaccines has skyrocketed, creating a supply deficit that the new R21 vaccine is expected to address sufficiently. By adding R21 to the roster of WHO-recommended malaria vaccines, it's anticipated that enough vaccine supply will be available to benefit all children residing in malaria-prone areas.
This addition is seen as a crucial tool to protect more children swiftly and advance closer to the goal of eradicating malaria1.
Malaria's historical toll
Malaria's sinister reputation as a ruthless killer isn't unfounded. Historically, it's believed that malaria has claimed an astronomical number of lives, with some claims suggesting it killed half of all humans ever lived.
However, a closer examination reveals that while malaria has undeniably been a formidable foe, the actual number of fatalities may be closer to four to five percent of the global population.
The disease remains a significant threat today, with 216 million cases reported in 2016 alone, leading to between 445,000 to 731,000 deaths. These numbers, albeit a slight improvement from the 839,000 deaths in 2000, underline the relentless nature of malaria and the pressing need for effective vaccines like R21.
Unprecedented vaccine efficacy
The R21 vaccine has demonstrated remarkable efficacy, especially when administered just before the high transmission season, reducing symptomatic malaria cases by 75 percent during the subsequent 12 months. Furthermore, the vaccine maintained its efficacy with a fourth dose administered a year after the initial three-dose regimen. This high level of efficacy is akin to that of the RTS,S vaccine when given seasonally1.
The cost-effectiveness of R21, priced between US$ 2 – US$ 4 per dose, along with its expected high impact across varying malaria transmission settings, positions it as a significant asset in the global fight against malaria. With at least 28 countries in Africa gearing up to introduce a WHO-recommended malaria vaccine as part of their national immunization programs, and substantial support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, the horizon seems a bit brighter in the battle against this age-old adversary1.
The next steps for the R21/Matrix-M vaccine include completing the ongoing WHO prequalification, which would enable broader rollout and international procurement of the vaccine. With a projected availability in mid-2024, the R21 vaccine stands as a beacon of hope for numerous countries grappling with malaria's menace, a significant stride towards a healthier future free from the shackles of malaria.
News tips: Tomas Wahlgren