No 'silver bullet' to tackle this disease

The combination of increased funding, resources and education to fight malaria have contributed to a reduction in deaths from this mosquito-borne disease by 60% since 2000. However malaria still claims nearly 500,000 lives every year, mostly those of young children in Africa. GSK’s Dr Sophie Biernaux, talks about our commitment to fighting this deadly disease.

In November 1994 I visited a paediatric centre in North Ghana. At that time, I was working on the development of a meningitis vaccine. I remember this little two-year-old girl, around the same age as my daughter at the time, suffering from malaria. She was so sick and I remember the desperation in her mother’s eyes. This has had a lasting effect on me and strengthens my commitment to contribute to the development of a malaria vaccine. 

I took over leadership of GSK’s malaria programme in 2007 and it was an honour to join a dedicated team in their quest for a vaccine. Hundreds of GSK scientists have been working on this challenge for more than 30 years and our investment has been more than $350 million to get to this point.

No single intervention is a silver bullet and no one organisation can attack this disease alone.

Sophie Biernaux Head of Malaria, HIV, Tuberculosis and Ebola Programmes Head

Malaria is relentless, killing one African child every two minutes. Existing methods to fight the disease such as bed nets and medicines have been effective, but concern about resistance to treatments and insecticides is increasing, along with the fear of a reduction in investment from international funders. To defeat malaria for good, more ammunition is needed, and this could come in the form of a vaccine. 

Currently, no vaccine exists against malaria, or indeed any human parasite. Finding ways to overcome the malaria parasite’s defence mechanisms is extremely challenging. But for the last 30 years, we have been working tirelessly to solve these issues and now we are closer than ever to fulfilling that goal.

In July 2015, the European Medicines Agency granted our malaria candidate vaccine RTS,S a positive scientific opinion. This followed a large-scale, late-stage study of RTS,S in over 15,000 children across seven countries in Africa. Results showed the vaccine candidate to have partial efficacy, but given the huge public health burden and economic cost of malaria in Africa, it has the potential to help improve the health and wealth of the continent.

The World Health Organization announced in January 2016 that RTS,S will be introduced to sub-Saharan African countries through a pilot implementation programme to be used alongside existing measures to fight malaria, such as bed nets and indoor residual insecticide spraying.

Reaching this point has not always been easy. We have only got this far thanks to our partners – the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative [1] – and research centres across Africa that have helped enable the rollout of late-stage trials. Looking ahead we will need more global and local partners to help realise broad and timely access to RTS,S across sub-Saharan Africa.

For example, as well as African governments being prepared for the uptake of a new vaccine, existing malaria control programmes will need to work together with immunisation programmes and communities to ensure community leaders and families understand what a malaria vaccine means, who it is for and where to go to have children immunised. 

Vaccine development aside, the fight against malaria must continue. No single intervention is a silver bullet and no one organisation can attack this disease on its own. Collectively, working with our partners, we must continue to advance our research into the next generation of vaccines, treatments and other methods if we are to finally combat this deadly disease.

In July 2015, the European Medicines Agency granted GSK’s malaria vaccine candidate a positive scientific opinion. The World Health Organization announced in January 2016 that it will be introduced to sub-Saharan African countries through a pilot implementation programme to be used alongside existing measures to fight malaria, such as bed nets and indoor residual insecticide spraying.

Sources

[1] PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative: A global programme set up by the non-profit organisation, PATH, established through an initial grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Its mission is to accelerate the development of malaria vaccines and support timely access in endemic countries.