The best vaccine news this spring may be in the fight against malaria, not COVID-19

Malaria test shows positive result for Tigrayan refugee Hareg, 23, from Mekelle, Ethiopia, administered by surgeon and doctor-turned-refugee, Dr Tewodros Tefera, at the Sudanese Red Crescent clinic in Hamdayet, in eastern Sudan, near the border with Ethiopia, on March 17, 2021 (AP Photo / Nariman El-Mofty)

Nariman El-Mofty / The Associated Press

The vaccines that are pouring into Canada these days are a scientific wonder. Created, tested, manufactured and shipped at record speed, they promise to handcuff the virus that has terrorized much of the world for the past year. But the biggest vaccine news of the season may turn out to have nothing to do with COVID-19.

Malaria is one of the oldest and deadliest afflictions of mankind. Mosquito-borne disease changed the outcome of wars and the fate of empires. Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” described its effects. Oliver Cromwell and Abraham Lincoln fell ill from it. Countless millions have suffered and died from it over the millennia.

The last decades have seen great strides in the fight against malaria. Swamp drainage and the use of insecticides have all but eliminated it in wealthy countries. The distribution of mosquito nets and the administration of antimalarial drugs have reduced the death rate in poor tropical countries. The number of annual deaths has more than halved over the past quarter century. But despite all of this progress, an estimated 400,000 people still die from malaria each year, two-thirds of them young children. Many others are disgusted. The world recorded 229 million cases in 2019.

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As National Geographic puts it: “Every second, seven people somewhere on Earth encounter one of humanity’s most prolific killers: a shape-changing parasite carried in the saliva of female mosquitoes that can escape our immune system and live in our livers and blood cells. Every two minutes, the parasite claims another victim under the age of five – and brings another round of heartache and loss. This sinister cycle unfolds every hour, every day, every week, every year. “

Inventing a vaccine against malaria has proven devilishly difficult. The disease is transmitted by a parasite, not a virus. The parasite goes through several stages of life and is much more genetically complex than the coronavirus. Even the most effective malaria vaccine produced to date is only about 55% effective.

Now comes what could be a breakthrough. Last month, a study of the results of a trial involving 450 children in Burkina Faso showed that a new vaccine is up to 77% effective. Scientists at the University of Oxford have said the R21 / Matrix-M vaccine is the first to meet a World Health Organization target of at least 75% effectiveness, and that they plan to conduct a much larger trial with children in four African countries. While experts warn it’s best to be cautious until results arrive in 2023 or 2024, the inventors say the vaccine has the potential to dramatically reduce the toll of malaria.

Controlling the disease would be the crowning achievement of this golden age of medical progress. It might be hard to absorb right now, in the midst of a crippling pandemic, but mankind’s greatest triumphs in recent times have been in the realm of public health.

One by one, we tackled the major scourges: cholera, smallpox, polio, tuberculosis, measles. The age when two in five children die before reaching adulthood is long past. Life expectancy has doubled over the past century. The proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has fallen to around 10%, the lowest in history.

In a world where what went wrong yesterday generally overshadows what went right, these incredible advances in human well-being often go unrecorded. Much of the news about the promising malaria vaccine has been lost in the headline storm of the pandemic. But it is worth thinking about it.

Like the effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine, this breakthrough is a testament to what science can accomplish in the face of the toughest problems. The vaccine is the result of years and years of patient and painstaking work by scientists around the world. Malaria is the big puzzle of disease, a challenge that has upset generations of vaccine researchers. It is one of the last mass killers – and, unlike COVID-19, it mainly attacks children.

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Today is one more step towards taming. At a time when the world around us may seem bleak, this is encouraging news.

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