Ghana became the first country to approve a new malaria vaccine that has been described as a “world-changer” by the scientists who developed it.
The vaccine called R21 appears to be hugely effective, in stark contrast to previous ventures in the same field.
Ghana’s drug regulators have assessed the final trial data on the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness, which is not yet public, and have decided to use it.
The World Health Organization is also considering approving the vaccine.
Malaria has been one of the biggest scourges on humanity for millennia and mostly kills babies and infants. The disease still kills more than 620,000 people a year (most of them young children) even after dramatic progress with bed nets, insecticides and drugs.
It has taken more than a century to develop effective vaccines as the malaria parasite, which is spread by mosquitoes, is spectacularly complex and elusive. It is a constantly moving target, shifting forms inside the body, which make it hard to immunise against.
Trial data from preliminary studies in Burkina Faso showed the R21 vaccine was up to 80% effective when given as three initial doses, and a booster a year later. But widespread use of the vaccine hinges on the results of a larger trial involving nearly 5,000 children.
Ghana’s Food and Drugs Authority has approved the vaccine’s use in children aged between five months to three years old.
Prof Adrian Hill, director of the Jenner Institute at the University of Oxford, where the vaccine was invented, says African countries are declaring: “we’ll decide”, after being left behind in the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines during the pandemic.
The Serum Institute of India is preparing to produce between 100-200 million doses per year, with a vaccine factory being constructed in Accra, Ghana. Each dose of R21 is expected to cost a couple of dollars.
Adar Poonawalla, CEO of the Serum Institute, said: “Developing a vaccine to greatly impact this huge disease burden has been extraordinarily difficult.”
He added that Ghana, as the first country to approve the vaccine, represents a “significant milestone in our efforts to combat malaria around the world”.