Highly effective malaria vaccine could be a game-changer, early trial suggests

Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people every year.
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A malaria vaccine developed by the University of Oxford proved to be 77% effective in early clinical trials, suggesting it could be a possible breakthrough in the fight against the one of the world's deadliest infectious disease. 

Malaria is caused by the Plasmodium parasite transmitted to people through the bite of Anopheles mosquitoes. In 2019, there were 229 million cases of malaria worldwide and 409,000 deaths, according to The World Health Organization's (WHO) World malaria report. About 94% of all of these cases and deaths occurred in Africa and 67% of the deaths were among children under the age of 5.

Developing an effective vaccine for malaria has proved to be difficult, with many previous vaccines showing only a modest result; the highest performing malaria vaccine candidate developed to date had a 55.8% efficacy. 

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This new Oxford vaccine, known as "R21/Matrx-M" is the first to pass the WHO's goal of achieving a vaccine with 75% efficacy against malaria by 2030. The results from this phase 2b clinical trial were published as a preprint in the journal The Lancet, and haven't yet been peer-reviewed.

The trial took place at the Research Institute in Health Sciences (IRSS) in Burkina Faso and involved 450 children between the ages of 5 and 17 months; a third of the participants were given a low dose of the experimental vaccine, a third were given a higher dose and a third served as a control group and were given the rabies vaccine. These children were vaccinated between early May of 2019 and early August of 2019, prior to the peak malaria season, according to a statement

In the 12 months after vaccination, the vaccine was 77% effective at preventing malaria in the higher-dose group and 71% effective in the lower dose group. They didn't report any serious adverse events.

The participants were then given a booster shot a year later.

"These are very exciting results showing unprecedented efficacy levels from a vaccine that has been well tolerated in our trial programme," Halidou Tinto, a professor in parasitology and the trial principal investigator said in the statement. "We look forward to the upcoming phase III trial to demonstrate large-scale safety and efficacy data for a vaccine that is greatly needed in this region," he added.

The researchers and their partners are now recruiting for a phase 3 trial to test their experimental vaccine for safety an efficacy among 4,800 children between the ages of 5 to 36 months in four African countries.

"Malaria is one of the leading causes of childhood mortality in Africa," Charlemagne Ouédraogo, Burkina Faso's Minister of Health said in the statement. This data shows that "licensure of a very useful new malaria vaccine could well happen in the coming years. That would be an extremely important new tool for controlling malaria and saving many lives."

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.