Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health on Flickr

Ghana first country to approve Oxford-developed malaria vaccine

The Oxford-developed R21/Matrix-M vaccine to combat malaria has been cleared for use in Ghana amongst children aged 5 months to 3 years old. This age group are most at risk of developing serious complications, as high temperatures, irritability, tiredness and sickness can quickly develop into respiratory issues and dehydration.

The complex lifecycle of the malaria parasites – of which there are 5 known to cause malaria in humans – mean that efforts to develop widely-distributable vaccines have so far failed. 

The Oxford vaccine is not the first of its kind, with pharmaceutical giant GSK receiving WHO endorsement for Mosquirix last year. However, the company can only produce 15 million doses per year. By contrast, the Oxford vaccine makers have partnered with the Serum Institute of India to produce up to 200 million doses annually.

This is a critical development, as patients must receive 4 doses for long-term protection. After a single booster dose, given a year after the first inoculation, efficacy levels for the drug remain at 77%, exceeding the WHO’s targets for vaccines. 

The results of ongoing clinical trials involving 4,800 children in Burkina Faso, Kenya, Mali and Tanzania are expected to be published soon, but appear promising. Professor Adrian Hill, founder and director of the Jenner Institute and tutor in medicine and biomedical science at Magdalen College, told Reuters that this marks the first time a major vaccine has been approved first in an African country (rather than rich, or highly developed, nations). Hill added that he was surprised that a regulatory authority in Africa had reviewed his team’s data quicker than the WHO.

In Ghana, there are around 5.3 million malaria cases a year, and 12,500 deaths were recorded due to the disease in 2021. Insecticide resistance and parasitic resistance to drugs have perpetuated malaria cases in Ghana and many other sub-Saharan African countries.

This region is particularly vulnerable due to human migration, pools of standing water caused by poor sanitation and drainage, and high temperatures. There are fears that, as climate change causes more irregular and intense weather patterns, cases of malaria could rise, particularly among the poorest and most vulnerable groups, and spread to new locations. 

It is anticipated that each dose of R21 will cost $2, with scientists hoping to secure more international funding for vaccine production and distribution.