The unveiling of the new malaria vaccine Mosquirix has been received with both celebration and trepidation by nations which confront malaria every day, including Kenya. The World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus hailed the vaccine as a breakthrough for science, child health and malaria control. It is estimated that at least 3.5 million Kenyans contract malaria every year claiming an estimated 10,700 lives annually. Those living in the western part of the country are particularly vulnerable.
But it’s not just Kenya that has to confront this killer disease, the world lost an estimated 400,000 people in 2019 from malaria. Unfortunately, 93% of these deaths occurred in Africa with children below 5 years accounting for 63% of the deaths. From these statistics, it’s clear that malaria is far more deadly than Covid-19 on the African continent as the latter killed 212,000 of those infected on the continent. The effectiveness of Mosquirix, developed by researchers drawn from Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, shows that its ability at preventing severe cases of malaria in children stands at around 30%.
According to WHO, malaria remains a primary cause of childhood illness and death in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s for this reason that the organization has partnered with major research institutions to confront this disease by carrying out pilot research in the three African nations.
The findings show that Mosquirix introduction is feasible, improves health and saves lives, with good and equitable coverage through routine immunization systems. It further shows that more than two-thirds of children in the three countries who are not sleeping under a bednet are benefitting from the vaccine.
This milestone in the global malaria fight should spur further investment in additional malaria vaccines already in the pipeline to ensure a healthy market, but also in other much-needed new tools such as genomic surveillance to stay one step ahead of growing drug and insecticide resistance. Research is now moving into targeting malaria through the use of gene drives, that potentially be more cost-effective and feasible than conventional interventions such as insecticides.
There are more than 3,500 species of mosquitoes in the world, more than 800 of which can be found in Africa alone. Gene drives target just the species of mosquitoes that transmit malaria —the Anopheles gambiae, Anopheles coluzzii, and Anopheles arabiensis— which in Africa are responsible for more than 90% of malaria transmission, while leaving other insects and mosquito species untouched.
According to a study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology, the gene drive technology could cause population collapse of the mosquito species that cause malaria.
The study showed that the group built a gene drive that would change a sex-related gene and disrupt female fertility. In this study, the gene drive with the modified female fertility gene spread through 100% of the test population in as little as seven generations. The species could not mate and the population collapsed. Some researchers believe this may be the approach that will finally wipe out malaria.
The author is a communications consultant, trainer and former Editor with the BBC