German drugmaker, BioNTech, has announced plans to develop a Messenger RNA (mRNA)- based vaccine to prevent malaria, a life-threatening disease that impacts millions of people, especially in Africa.
The company, which developed the United States’ first authorised COVID-19 vaccine with an American drugmaker, Pfizer, said it is planning to begin clinical trials by the end of 2022.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), European Commission and other organisations have been involved in the early planning phase of the new vaccine, the company said.
It added that global organisations have also offered their support to identify and set up the necessary infrastructure.
“We’re committed to reducing the suffering of people worldwide, so we feel we have a duty to utilise our technology to develop and manufacture an mRNA-based vaccine that addresses this life-threatening disease,” BioNTech CEO, Ugur Sahin, said in a statement obtained by PREMIUM TIMES on Monday.
The company also pledged to manufacture the potential vaccine in African facilities – either with licensed production partners or on its own.
Mr Sahin said the aim is to develop “sustainable solutions for and together with the people of Africa”.
“Building on our mRNA technology and the expertise gained during the pandemic, our efforts will include substantial investments in vaccine development as well as transferring manufacturing expertise to sites on the African continent,” he said.
The development of the new vaccine comes as the world continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic which has claimed more than four million lives globally, according to data from worldometer.
Pfizer and BioNTech had developed a highly effective mRNA-based vaccine to target the COVID-19 virus. This has been in use in several countries and has helped reduce the number of infections and deaths.
The mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccine works by tricking the body to produce a harmless piece of the virus, triggering an immune response.
It is said to be easier to produce over traditional vaccines, which generally use a dead or weakened virus to produce an immune response.
Malaria is a disease caused by a parasite and spread to humans through the bites of infected mosquitoes.
There were an estimated 229 million cases of Malaria and at least 409,000 deaths in 2019, according to WHO.
The majority of the cases were in Africa, and children under age five are the most vulnerable group affected by the disease.
Malaria is endemic in Nigeria with about 53 million cases annually (one in four residents) and 81,640 deaths annually (nine deaths per hour) from the disease.
According to the WHO’s latest world malaria report, more than 1.5 billion cases of malaria and 7.6 million deaths have been averted since 2000 through global efforts to control the disease.
However, in recent years, the gains in combating malaria have plateaued, and progress towards critical targets is no longer on track.
Meanwhile, the president of the European Investment Bank (EIB), Werner Hoyer, said malaria is a tricky disease to vaccinate against, hence it takes a lot of courage and dedication to embark on the endeavour BioNTech just committed to.
Mr Hoyer said finding an efficient vaccine is the only way to eradicate malaria, one of the biggest causes of death in children in less developed countries.
“mRNA technology has shown itself to be a game-changer to end the pandemic, and the EIB confirmed its support for this innovative approach with two loans to BioNTech, one in 2019 for developing cancer treatments and the other in 2020 for research on the COVID-19 vaccine.
“If mRNA can revolutionise malaria vaccine development as well, the EU bank would be proud to support this mission,” he said.
In his remarks, President of the European Commission, Ursula Leyen, said the world is witnessing the start of a revolution in medical science.
“mRNA technology can be a game-changer in the fight against other diseases too – including malaria.
“Eradicating malaria is a realistic goal and now we know that it might be achieved already in this generation,” he said.
Mr Leyen said this initiative is also a part of the broader engagement by the EU for health in Africa and the developing world.
“If we succeed, we will not only be better equipped for the next pandemic. We will also invest in an African continent that is finally free from malaria,” he said.
Jutta Urpilainen, commissioner for international partnerships, said: “I warmly welcome the ground-breaking announcement of BioNTech, that aims to use the mRNA technology in the fight against Malaria, a major disease affecting the African continent.
“Our Team Europe initiative on enhancing vaccine manufacturing and access to medicines and health technologies in Africa will support this important project, ” he said.