World’s First Malaria Vaccine Passes Major Human Trial

This is big big news coming from the medicine research front. For the first time in history, a vaccine has been synthesized that is proven to work successfully against malaria. This is, however, just the first round of trials, but the success rate is extremely exciting. The vaccine, made by the R&D wing of GlaxoSmithKline, has been shown to halve the risk of malaria in African children. We might soon see a commercially available shot that’ll provide immunity to millions against malaria for life.

The Anopheles mosquito

The vaccine, known as RTS-S or Mosquirix, has been clinically tested in five-to-17 month-old babies in Africa. The success rate is around 50% – 47% for severe malaria and 56% for clinical malaria. So, the best we can say at this moment is that the vaccine is not the magic bullet, like the small pox vaccine, which has eradicated the disease. The malaria vaccine is likely to only control the spread of the deadly disease, which is endemic in over 100 countries, many of them being African.

The Support

The research has been financially supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation will also pour in money to get the drug into Africa and then arrange for the proper administration in regions ravaged by malaria. Before that, however, the clinical trials have to confirm the efficacy of the drug. GSK predicts that the drug could hit the market by 2015.

The cost-efficiency of the drug is a huge factor in the success of the anti-malaria campaign. GSK promises to make no money out of this project. It says that it will charge only the manufacturing cost (which will be low, if mass produced), plus 5% on it, which will then be diverted to focus research on tropical diseases. In a way, Africa can partially pay for its own medical research. The Gates Foundation hailed the success as a huge milestone. The plan is to price the vaccine at a nominal $10 for 3 shots, which is the required number of shots.

The Man Behind the Miracle

The success came after 24 long years of painstaking research by GSK research scientist Joe Cohen, who was heading the research. He speaks his heart:

This is a dream of any scientist — to see your life’s work actually translated into a medicine … that can have this great impact on peoples’ lives. How lucky am I?

Dr. Joe Cohen, the mastermind in the war against malaria (Photo Courtesy: Reuters)

But, this is no magic bullet and will not have the same impact the small pox vaccine had on the disease. This is, however, a crucial step. Dr. Cohen is rightly cautious, when he says:

The work is not over, that is for sure

The Plasmodium vivax microgamete. The others are RBC's. Special dye adheres to the microgamete. This will give rise to many P.vivax microbes.

The vaccine stimulates the immune system to attack the microbe as soon as it enters the body from the parasite. This prevents the microbe from reproducing indiscriminately and settling in the liver of the victim.

We might not have won the war against the deadly disease, but it certainly seems that we will soon possess a potent weapon. For Africa, where health and life are luxuries, this vaccine will be more like an elixir.

Published by

Debjyoti Bardhan

Is a science geek, currently pursuing some sort of a degree (called a PhD) in Physics at TIFR, Mumbai. An enthusiastic but useless amateur photographer, his most favourite activity is simply lazing around. He is interested in all things interesting and scientific.