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Malaria defeat draws nearer with vaccine trials in US, UK

Researchers outside the shores of the continent carrying the heaviest burden of the malaria epidemic are putting frantic efforts into making Africa’s nightmare a thing of the past.

One researcher from the UK institute that developed the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine is looking to make people immune to the infectious disease, while the other is aiming at making mosquitoes immune to the parasites that cause malaria.

Beginning this month, Adrian Hill, a professor and director at Jenner Institute UK, and his team are driving a comprehensive test of 5,000 children across East and West Africa in a phase three clinical trials expected to last two years.

Due to the multiple genetic makeups of plasmodium parasites, the researchers are using a protein-based technology to trigger high antibody responses, Hill said in a local report.

“This really is a very potent vaccine technology,” he said. “What we’ve found in malaria over the years is that you can get some protection, but it’s for weeks or months and then it really tails off very quickly.”

He noted, however, that the vaccine’s design offers a higher efficacy level and lasts longer.

If this sails through, it could remove the major hurdle faced by the only malaria vaccine currently stamped by the World Health Organisation, RTS,S.

Read Also: Nigeria’s ‘most promising’ vaccine could cost more than Pfizer, AstraZeneca’s

The vaccine developed in 2014 is 39 percent efficacious in children at 5 and below and 29 percent effective in severe malaria cases.

There are also plans afoot with the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, Serum Institute of India, to produce 300 million doses.

But how long will it take to eradicate the deadly disease?

“It won’t happen in five years but it might well happen in 20,” Hill said.

Hill’s work has been backed by a £500m fund to the UK Research and Innovation that is about to start dwindling from government cutbacks.

The US research by Rhoel Dinglasan, an associate professor of Infectious Diseases, University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, is supported by a $6 million grant by the Global Health Innovative Technology Fund.

The first phase of clinical trial begins this month in Gabon, looking to block the mosquitoes from transmitting the parasite to people in the first place.

In an earlier study, Dinglasan’s team identified a mosquito protein effective for building a vaccine that can block transmission.

When animals such as mice were exposed to the protein, they produced antibodies which, when introduced into mosquitoes infected with plasmodium, prevented the parasites from completing their lifecycle.

Usually, the parasites need both mosquitoes and people to complete their lifecycle.

The vaccine is designed to be administered to people who are at high risk of infection or already infected with plasmodium and may express symptoms or not.

The parasites they harbour then pass into biting mosquitoes, which then pass the parasites on to others.

People who are infected with the parasites, but who also receive the vaccine, will begin producing antibodies against the mosquito protein.

When a mosquito bites this individual, it picks up these antibodies too. And when the parasite tries to infect the mosquito tissue, the antibodies disrupt this process.

“The parasite cannot establish an infection in the mosquito,” Dinglasan says. “This breaks the transmission chain of malaria.”

Despite the pandemic, Nigeria was the hardest hit globally in 2020, accounting for 27 percent of global malaria cases and the highest death rate, 23 percent, according to 2020 World Malaria Report by the World Health Organisation.

Before a vaccine is produced, the report citing a recent analysis from Nigeria, noted that the country could avert millions of additional cases and thousands of additional deaths by the year 2023, through an optimized mix of interventions.

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