Scientists at an international conference on malaria in Yaounde, Cameroon, have released new findings, which show major progress has been made in efforts to create a vaccine for the deadly disease. The vaccine's proponents hope a partnership with donors will make it available to the world's poor.
Work has been under way on the candidate vaccine, known as RTS, S-AS02, for more than two decades. But test results presented at the Pan-African Malaria Conference in Yaounde Tuesday are being touted by its makers, American-based pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, as a critical breakthrough.
Results from a study conducted in cooperation with Mozambique's health ministry published last year showed the vaccine reduced severe malaria episodes by more than half.
There had been fears that level of effectiveness would fade over time.
Tuesday's results indicate that, 18 months later, the level of efficacy has indeed dropped, but only very little.
Inventor, Dr. John Cohen says, if the findings hold up, even in its current form the vaccine could eventually save hundreds of thousands of lives every year.
"To put things in perspective, you must remember that it is estimated that between one and three million kids, mainly, die of malaria every year in the endemic regions. So a vaccine that can protect with a 50 percent efficacy against the severe form of the disease has the possibility of protecting against many of these deaths," said Dr. Cohen. He adds that he's now working to make the vaccine even better.
"We will also be reporting at this MIM conference on a potential improvement of the vaccine, changing a little bit what we call the formulation," he said. "We will be testing that new formulation in the field very soon, over the next year or so. And there is, we feel, a good chance that this formulation will further increase the level of efficacy of the vaccine."
Work on the vaccine is being funded through a private-public partnership, pairing money from GlaxoSmithKline with funding from donor organizations.
The Path Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which is managing the clinical development, last month received more than $107 million from Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
Its director, Melinda Moree says this new method of funding drug research is making headway in the fight against diseases endemic in the developing world.
"For a lot of these diseases that only affect poor countries, the industry doesn't really have the reward system in place that encourages them to work on these things. So, for malaria vaccines, for many years, very few people were working on them," she said.
Ms. Moree says, if hopes for Dr. Cohen's vaccine do pan out, she hopes that same level of cooperation will go into making it available to those that need it most.
"We've got over a million kids a year dying of malaria, 2,000 kids a day are dying of malaria," she said. "We should be putting more money, more effort into doing something about this. We just need to do something to stop these deaths."
RTS, S-AS02 is among several candidate vaccines currently in development. Several phases of testing remain, but researchers hope it will be on the market by 2010.