GlaxoSmithKline Plc and its partners are finally ready to deploy a vaccine for malaria, after more than three decades of work and almost $1 billion of investment.
The vaccine comes at a critical time and marks a milestone in the battle against the parasite that causes malaria. Malaria is a mosquito-borne disease that kills almost half a million people each year.
WHO estimates that malaria killed 435,000 people in 2017. Children under the age of five are particularly vulnerable in Africa and their deaths account for about two-thirds of all deaths.
The malaria parasite’s uncanny ability to resist drugs and insecticides due to its complicated genes makes efforts to eliminate the disease more difficult.
A 2017 study, conducted by Bloomberg, of more than 600 children from a village in the West African nation of Gabon found that each was infected by a slightly different strain.
With children in some regions getting multiple episodes of malaria in a year, even a partially effective vaccine could have a big impact, Mary Hamel, coordinator of the program for the WHO, said in an interview to Bloomberg.
The pilot is scheduled to start in Malawi next week and expand to Ghana and Kenya next.
As the pilot starts in Africa, scientists are looking to the potential next generation of technology.
“This is the first malaria vaccine,” Hamel said, “not the last.”
WHO projects that the program has the potential to save tens of thousands of children’s lives.