WHO’s historic recommendation for malaria vaccine spurs hope

The long and at times faltering fight against malaria hit a turning point this week when the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended a broad rollout of a vaccine that protects against Plasmodium falciparum, the deadliest malaria parasite globally and the most prevalent in Africa, according to news reports. The WHO’s decision is being heralded as a historic announcement as it is the first time a vaccine has been developed and recommended for malaria, a disease that killed approximately 400,000 people in 2019, more than half of whom were children under 5.

The WHO said the vaccine, known as RTS,S, should be widely used among children in sub-Saharan Africa and in other regions with moderate to high transmission of malaria. The vaccine is administered in four doses to children starting at 5 months of age. Data from studies in three African countries— Ghana, Kenya and Malawi—showed that the vaccine reduced the risk of contracting malaria by 40% and the risk of severe malaria by 30%.

Dyann Wirth, Richard Pearson Strong Professor of Infectious Disease at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and chair of the WHO’s Malaria Policy Advisory Group, discussed the scientific and financial challenges of developing a malaria vaccine in an October 7, 2021 Salon article. “The malaria parasite is a complex eukaryotic organism; it has 5,000 genes, and the coronavirus has less than 10 genes,” said Wirth, who is also an institute member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Further complicating matters, Wirth explained, is that malaria parasites have been evolving for millennia. “If you take and compare malaria parasites, you’ll find dozens of genes that are different, even between parasites that are circulating at the same time and in the same part of the world,” she said.

In an October 6, 2021 STAT article, Wirth indicated that more and better malaria vaccines will be needed, but that the recommendation of RTS,S is an important step in the right direction that she hopes spurs the development of other next-generation vaccines.

In an interview with PRI’s The World, malaria expert Regina Rabinovich of Harvard Chan School said she was “extremely excited” by the WHO’s recommendation. “It is a dream for the community that we would be able to tackle this disease, not only with partially effective nets and insecticides and treatments, but also with the creation of immunity in those most fragile,” she said.

Read the Salon article: Malaria, known to humans for millennia, finally has a vaccine. Here’s why it was so hard to develop

Read the STAT article: In major decision, WHO recommends broad rollout of world’s first malaria vaccine

Read PRI’s The World article: First WHO-backed malaria vaccine is a ‘dream for the community,’ health expert says