It took a pandemic that killed millions of people, but the developed world seems ready to manufacture a malaria vaccine that works.
The Covid pandemic clearly demonstrates that Africa will never vaccinate enough of its people against Covid-19 (or any other disease) until manufacturing takes place there. It also made clear that if a disease is allowed to flourish in Africa, it will forever be present globally.
The scientific triumph and economic success of Pfizer’s mRNA Covid-19 vaccine juxtaposed on the battle Africa is losing with Covid because it can’t get the vaccine has finally shamed enough western powers to loosen international patents and in other ways underwrite the serious acceleration of both a Covid and a malaria vaccine for manufacture in Africa. We could have the malaria vaccine within a few years.
Pfizer and its German arm BioNTech announced last week that they had completed arrangements to manufacture Covid vaccines in South Africa.
Simultaneously the pharma giants announced they would begin acceleration of plans to develop and manufacture an mRNA malaria vaccine in Africa as well.
94% of the half million deaths a year from malaria are in Africa. In 2019 there were nearly 230 million cases of malaria and having recovered from malaria multiple times as well as recovered from a mild case of Covid I can assure you at their less than lethal or hospitalization stages malaria is worse than Covid.
(Malaria is not directly transmissible from person to person, requiring a mosquito to do the dirty work. So unless a plague of variant mosquitoes that can overwinter in Stockholm erupts, malaria will never pose the global health threat that Covid-19 does.)
Because malaria is almost exclusively an African disease the development of a vaccine has been slow. There have been truly noble efforts, particularly from great foundations like Gates, but developing a vaccine these days costs almost as much as sending someone to the space station. And until now the potential return to big pharma was small: Africans are poor.
Covid changed all this. First, the threat of Covid was so great that western governments abandoned all sorts of regulations plus then funded the Covid mRNA vaccine. mRNA vaccines had been in development for nearly 20 years, and it would probably have been another ten to reach statutory regulatory approvals from most western governments before the technology could be more broadly developed.
Covid changed that. Several big pharma companies have now proved the safety and efficacy of the technology. While there are certain types of diseases which might lend themselves better to the old-fashioned egg vaccine, most will now be developed as mRNAs.
Malaria is a perfect candidate.
There are seven critical stages in the development of malaria, and interrupting any one of them prevents the disease. Theoretically mRNA can be targeted to any one of those stages.
There is no altruism in any of this. Two more traditional malaria vaccines from the UK’s Jenner Institute and GlaxoSmithKline’s Mosquirix have encountered all sorts of stumbling blocks and relatively poor efficacy. This is because no regulatory hurdles were relaxed for them and the overall slow pace of development can be directly attributed to their lack of herculean funds of the sort Pfizer and BioNTech now possess as a result of Covid proceeds.
And the fact that Pfizer believes that investment in African manufacturing plants will be profitable is the clincher. Now keep in mind, nobody thinks that Africa will be paying for all of this, but the mood of the western world has changed substantially vis-a-vis public health in the last year. And remarkable as it seems, “public” can now be considered “global” without risking the loss of the Senate.
Pfizer is gambling that the western world’s relaxation of manufacturing patents also means the western world will foot more of the bill for doing so.
It’s terrible that it sometimes takes disaster to procure empathy, particularly when that disaster was predicted. But that’s what’s happened with Covid’s success generating new hope that malaria, too, can be prevented.
And I’ll assure you, too, there will be lots less malaria vaccine hesitancy in Africa than Covid vaccine hesitancy in Arkansas.