Progress towards malaria vaccine

Scientists have made huge strides in the race to produce a malaria vaccine but their efforts to save hundreds of thousands of lives could be slowed by the global economic crisis, officials said.

"We have seen a lot of progress in the development of a malaria vaccine," Christian Loucq, director of the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) told hundreds of scientists and doctors from around the world at the conference in Washington.

The RTS, S vaccine against falciparum malaria, the most deadly form of the mosquito-borne disease, has moved into Phase III trials, which test a vaccine's safety and efficacy on a large scale, he added.

The advanced phase trial of RTS, S marked a pivotal point in developing a vaccine against malaria, said Colonel Christian Ockenhouse, director of the US Military Malaria Vaccine Program at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), which has been infecting US volunteers with malaria for 17 years to try to find a way of preventing the disease.

Trials in seven countries

The trials are being conducted in seven African countries, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Mozambique and Tanzania, with enrollment targeted to reach 16,000 children and infants.

Results of Phase II trials, which were announced in 2008, showed RTS, S was 53% effective against clinical falciparum malaria in young children, the most vulnerable to the illness.

In infants, the vaccine was up to 65% effective.

If successful, the Phase III testing and licensing of the vaccine would make it a "first generation malaria vaccine that is at least 50% effective against severe disease and death, and that lasts more than one year," the Malaria Vaccine Initiative has said.

Top infectious disease

Malaria is at the top of a list of infectious diseases that are "important to the US military," Thomas Richie of the WRAIR malaria vaccine program said.

"That's good for us but a sad tribute to this parasitic disease," he said, adding that budget cuts could affect the US military's research program, which could in turn affect delivery of a vaccine.

"We don't know what our funding will be over the coming years. If cuts are sustained, we will have to make cuts. And even in the absence of cuts to our budget, funding has not gone up in last couple years. So we might have to make cuts anyway," said Richie.

Experts including GlaxoSmithKline researcher Joe Cohen, the co-inventor of the RTS, S vaccine, have said they hope a preventive shot against the mosquito-borne disease will be available in three to five years.

Not yet available

But at the start of the conference, Cohen was cautious about when a vaccine would be available.

"We are all dreamers... Hopefully we will eventually succeed but need to be realistic," Cohen said, refusing to give a date for when the vaccine would be available.

In 2002, he predicted that a malaria vaccine would be ready for delivery in 2009.

"Sorry about 2009; I won't give you a new date," he said.

More than a third of the world’s population is at risk of contracting malaria, a disease that kills some 900,000 people each year. The falciparum strain of malaria is the most deadly form of the illness, which is caused by a parasite carried by mosquitoes.

According to the organisers of the Washington conference, some 200 people die of malaria every hour of every day every year, most of them children in Africa.

Malaria is one of the main obstacles to socio-economic development in Africa, and developing effective vaccines against the disease would have an enormous effect on reducing its negative impact, they said. (Sapa, September 2010)

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