The World Health Organization (WHO) said Wednesday that the only approved malaria vaccine should be widely administered to African children, which could mark a breakthrough against a disease that kills hundreds of thousands of people annually.
The WHO recommendation is for RTS, S, or Mosquirix, a vaccine developed by British pharmacist GlaxoSmithKline.
Since 2019, 2.3 million doses of Mosquirix have been administered to infants in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi in a large-scale pilot program coordinated by WHO. Most of those killed by the disease are under the age of five.
That program followed a decade of clinical trials in seven African countries.
“This is a vaccine developed in Africa by African scientists and we are very proud,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “This vaccine is a gift to the world, but its value will be felt most in Africa.”
Malaria is much more deadly than Covid-19 in Africa. It killed 386,000 Africans in 2019, according to a WHO estimate, compared with 212,000 confirmed deaths from Covid-19 in the past 18 months.
The WHO says that 94% of malaria cases and deaths occur in Africa, a continent of 1.3 billion people. The preventable disease is caused by parasites transmitted to people by the bites of infected mosquitoes; symptoms include fever, vomiting, and fatigue.
Mosquirix’s recommendation was jointly announced in Geneva by WHO’s main advisory bodies on malaria and immunization, the Malaria Policy Advisory Group and the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization.
The vaccine’s effectiveness in preventing severe cases of malaria in children is only about 30%, but it is the only approved vaccine. The European Union’s drug regulator approved it in 2015, saying its benefits outweigh the risks.
In late 2015, WHO expert panels called for a pilot program in three to five African countries to inform a future decision on the widespread use of the vaccine.
On Wednesday, nearly six years later and two years after the pilots began, WHO panels recommended that the vaccine be implemented for children in malaria-endemic African nations, along with other authorized means to prevent malaria, such as mosquito nets and fumigation.
In 2019, the WHO said the fight against malaria had stalled. But he said Wednesday that using the vaccine as an additional tool against the disease could save tens of thousands of lives each year.