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WHO’s malaria pilot vaccine: No silver bullet, but a potential strike at malaria’s heart



– The first malaria vaccine to enter a national pilot project is not a silver bullet against the disease that kills half a million every year, but it still might be powerful enough to significantly reduce global disease burden, and even impact transmission, according to infectious disease specialist Nick Beeching, MD.

The vaccine, RTS,S (Mosquirix; GlaxoSmithKline), will be tested in three African countries beginning next year, the World Health Organization announced on April 25. The pilot programs will target 720,000 children aged 5-17 months in high-risk areas of the three countries.

Even though it’s the first malaria vaccine to pass its pivotal phase III trial, RTS,S isn’t terribly effective by any standards, said Dr. Beeching of the Royal Liverpool (England) University.

Dr. Nick Beeching Michele Sullivan/Frontline Medical News

Dr. Nick Beeching

“In the phase III study, it only reduced clinical cases by about 40%,” he said in an interview during the European Society of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases annual congress. “Normally, that wouldn’t be good enough for any vaccine to get approved. But this is aimed at the under 5-year-olds, children who are at the highest risk of death from malaria. And there are so many at risk, that even a 40% reduction in disease burden would be a major advance.”

April 25, 2017, is World Malaria Day, and Anthony S. Fauci, MD, and B. Fenton Hall, MD, PhD, of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in a statement, “Safe and effective vaccines are critical tools for future efforts to control, eliminate, and, ultimately, eradicate malaria. NIAID is supporting the development of numerous malaria vaccine candidates, 10 of which are in clinical trials. In 2015, an estimated 212 million new malaria cases and 429,000 deaths occurred. Nearly 90% of these cases were among children under the age of 5 years in Africa, where malaria claims the life of a child every 2 minutes.”

GSK has been working on this vaccine since 1985, according to the company’s RTS,S literature. It is a recombinant protein that targets the circumsporozoite protein of the Plasmodium falciparum parasite at an early stage, before it enters the liver and begins to embed in erythrocytes. The aim, Dr. Beeching said, was to develop an antigen that would mobilize the immune system from the moment a mosquito injected the sporozoites through a bite, “well before they have a chance to hide in the liver.”

The 2- and 3-year follow-up results of the phase III trial, conducted in 15,500 children, were published in the Lancet in 2015. RTS,S was administered as a three-dose series, plus a booster dose, beginning at 5 months of age. The primary immunizations were given with a minimum 4-week interval between doses, with the booster administered 18 months after the last dose.

The primary series reduced clinical cases by 26%. With the booster dose, cases were reduced by 39% overall. The vaccine averted 1,774 episodes of clinical malaria per 1,000 vaccinated children, and 983 cases per 1,000 vaccinated infants. But vaccine efficacy waned over time, disappearing completely in children who got only the three-dose series. The booster dose improved response stability somewhat; during the 12 months after the fourth dose, vaccine efficacy was about 25%.

Based on these results, GSK received approval from the European Medicines Agency in 2015, and the WHO recommended a large-scale implementation of the vaccine be carried out last year. GSK will provide the vaccine at no cost, and each country’s government will decide which regions to include in the pilot study.

This real-world use will put RTS,S to the ultimate test, Dr. Beeching said: “There is always the practical problem of how do you get four doses of vaccine into people. It’s easy to do in a clinical trial, but the operations and the logistics of getting it right on the ground are what really matter. We don’t know how good less than four doses would be, and we still don’t know how long the protective effect of the full series plus booster will last. I think there’s concern that it might wane with time.”

Still, he said, even a 39% reduction in disease burden is worth aggressively pursuing, not only because of the thousands of children’s lives that could be saved, but because unvaccinated children and adults could potentially be protected as well: “We could see a knock-on effect. By reducing the burden of malaria in children, it may also reduce transmission to other people who haven’t been vaccinated.”

The vaccine certainly won’t eradicate malaria, Dr. Beeching said. It needs to be viewed as an addition to WHO’s core vector control strategy, which includes insecticide-impregnated bed nets and mosquito eradication programs.

Cost is an unresolved issue. According to the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which is partnering with GSK to launch RTS,S, the company won’t charge for the vaccine in the pilot project, and is committed to making sure the children who need it get it.

“In many African countries, childhood vaccines are provided at no cost to children or their families, thanks to existing international and national financing mechanisms,” the company said in a press release. “The RTS,S partnership anticipates that similar mechanisms would be implemented for a malaria vaccine. A shared goal is to have the cost of a malaria vaccine not be a barrier to access.

“GSK has previously stated that the price of RTS,S will cover the cost of manufacturing the vaccine together with a small return of around 5%, which will be reinvested in research and development for next-generation malaria vaccines or vaccines against other neglected tropical diseases.”

Finally, Dr. Beeching said, there’s no way to know to know how long any malaria vaccine would retain its effectiveness.

“Making a malaria vaccine has been a dream for years, and a tough one. The antigens change according to the stage of the parasite, and there is always continuous genetic variation. So there is a possibility of escape from vaccine coverage. These are very clever parasites,” he said.

Dr. Beeching has no financial interest in the vaccine.

On Twitter @Alz_gal

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