Pharmaceutical company GSK has been awarded a contract to produce the world’s first malaria vaccine to protect millions more children from the deadly disease, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced on Tuesday.
The landmark award, valued at $170 million, will make 18 million doses of the RTS,S vaccine available over the next three years, potentially saving thousands of young lives each year.
Malaria remains one of the biggest killers of children under the age of five. In 2020, nearly half a million boys and girls died from the disease in Africa alone, which is one death every minute.
“A giant step forward”
Etleva Kadili, UNICEFO’s Director of Supply Opens in new window, told Opens in new window that the deployment sends a clear signal to malaria vaccine developers to continue their work.
“We hope this is just the beginning. Continued innovation is needed to develop new and next-generation vaccines to increase the available supply and ensure a healthier vaccine market,” she said.
“This is a giant step forward in our joint efforts to save children’s lives and reduce the burden of malaria as part of broader malaria prevention and control programs.”
A preventable disease
Malaria is caused by parasites and is transmitted to humans through infected female Anopheles mosquitoes. Although the disease is preventable and curable, it can be fatal if left untreated.
According to the World Health Organization (WHOOpens in a new window), more than 30 countries have areas of moderate to high malaria transmission, and the vaccine could provide additional protection to more than 25 million children each year if supplies increase.
RTS,S Malaria Vaccine – The result of 35 years of research and development, it is the first ever vaccine against parasitic diseases.
It was launched in a 2019 pilot program coordinated by WHO in three countries – Ghana, Kenya and Malawi – reaching more than 800,000 children.
In October of last year, the UN Health Agency recommended Opens in new window its widespread use in countries with moderate and high levels of malaria transmission.
In December of that year, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, decided to provide funding for malaria vaccine programs in the countries concerned, thus paving the way for wider vaccine distribution.
A financing “window” has opened
CEO Seth Barkley said Gavi recently opened an “application window” for funding requests.
“Thanks to UNICEF’s procurement work, we now have greater certainty of supply and can move a step closer to getting this life-saving vaccine to the people who need it most. As production builds over time, we hope that increased volumes will also lead to more sustainable and lower prices,” he said.
In the meantime, WHO welcomes progress in securing supplies and timely access to the vaccine so that more countries can introduce it as soon as possible.
“Lives are at risk every day,” said Dr Kate O’Brien, director of the WHO’s Department of Immunisation, Vaccines and Biologicals. “Given the initial limited supply, it is vital that children living in areas where disease risk and need are highest are prioritized first.”
High demand is expected
UNICEF expects demand for malaria vaccine to be high in affected countries.
As with any new vaccine, supplies will be limited at first, the agency said, but will increase as production capacity is built over time, which in turn will lower costs per dose.
Plans are already underway to scale up production, including through technology transfer, UNICEF added, “so that every child at risk will one day be immunized against this deadly disease.”
Distributed by APO Group on behalf of the United Nations Office at Geneva (UNOG).
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