Why mRNA tech could be game-changer in creating malaria vaccine

Published: Jul. 28, 2021 at 3:00 PM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - We’ve seen how effective the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are at preventing COVID-19. Both are made using mRNA technology, and that’s leading some vaccine developers to bank on it for more elusive diseases like malaria.

“We plan for success from the very beginning,” said BioNTech founder and CEO Ugur Sahin this week, in announcing plans to develop the first vaccine for malaria based on mRNA technology. He said the company is looking to build on the success of its COVID-19 vaccine, which it developed in partnership with Pfizer. “Our goal is to develop a vaccine which makes the malaria parasite visible and attackable by the immune system from the very beginning when it is most vulnerable.”

But malaria, which has evaded vaccines for decades, could prove to be much harder to target. “Malaria is such a devastating disease that’s basically part of human evolution. People have struggled for probably 80 years to get a malaria vaccine to work. So, unlike the viral vaccines -- the COVID vaccines -- that were fairly straightforward, it’s not a slam dunk that this one will work,” said Dr. Beth Kirkpatrick, director of the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine Vaccine Testing Center.

She says it comes down to the differences in the diseases. Malaria is actually a parasite, not a virus. It’s a much more complex organism and much better at hiding from the body’s immune system. So, creating a vaccine that teaches the body to target it is tricky. “There’s just a lot of pathogen tricks to get around that are a lot more complicated than a vaccine for a virus,” Kirkpatrick said.

That’s what other vaccine makers have found out. There is a licensed malaria vaccine already out in the world, but the shot from GlaxoSmithKline is only about 30% effective. Still, that was considered better than nothing, given how devastating the disease is. The World Health Organization says there were 229 million cases of malaria in 87 countries in 2019 and 409,000 people died from it. Two-thirds of those victims were children under the age of five and many were in impoverished areas of Africa. An effective vaccine could be game-changing for them.

“And I think this really is a historic moment. We may look back at this moment and see it as a transformative pivot point in the fight against malaria,” said Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“The mRNA vaccines, I think, have possibilities across the spectrum of things that can cause infectious diseases, but particularly for the viruses,” Kirkpatrick said. Even though malaria isn’t a virus, she says it’s worth a shot -- literally -- but also thinks a malaria vaccine will take longer to develop than the coronavirus one did. “This one is going to take a lot more study to be confident that this will work.”

BioNTech aims to start clinical testing of its malaria vaccine next year.

You can watch Cat Viglienzoni’s full interview with Dr. Kirkpatrick, including how you can help in some of the UVM vaccine testing center’s trials for polio and zika, Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m. on “You Can Quote Me.”

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