The World Health Organization has called for a massive effort to get the new malaria vaccine into the arms of African children, as it warned that about 180,000 more people are dying each year from the disease than previously thought.
Pedro Alonso, director of the WHO's global malaria programme, said that the RTS, S vaccine recommended for widespread rollout in October, represented a historic opportunity to save tens of thousands of lives, mostly those of under-fives in sub-Saharan Africa.
He warned that the global community risked huge failure if funding commitments aimed at boosting production and helping deployment of the vaccine were not quickly made.
The real barrier is international solidarity, he said. Is the world going to allow a first malaria vaccine that can save the lives of tens of thousands of African children every year and they are going to let it sit on a shelf? The RTS, S vaccine, developed by British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKlein, has pledged to donate up to 10 m doses for use in the pilot programmes already under way, and to supply up to 15 m doses annually.
With more than 240 m cases globally last year, the potential demand could reach 80 to 100 m doses annually, Alonso warned. He said that this is a prime example of how international mechanisms will need to come into play.
A vaccine that could save somewhere between 40 and 70 80,000 lives every year, of African children, needs to be treated with the utmost ambition and sense of urgency. If you ask me, a slow, gradual scale-up would not be acceptable. This needs to be a massive, urgent operation to make sure we reach as many children as possible and as soon as possible. He said that if the global health community does not respond to this challenge, it will represent a massive failure. I cannot imagine how different leaders, leaders of philanthropy or financing institutions, are going to go to Africa and advocate for efforts to prevent childhood deaths if they don't, first and foremost, support the deployment of this vaccine. The global vaccine alliance, Gavi, said last week that it had approved an initial $155.7 m 117 m for the roll out of RTS, S. The funding would help the introduction, procurement and delivery of the vaccine for eligible countries in sub-Saharan Africa from 2022 to 2025.
Abdourahmane Diallo, CEO of the RBM Partnership to End Malaria, said the announcement would give the private sector a crucial motive to scale up the roll out.
He said leaders should step up investment to accelerate the development and delivery of more effective, transformative tools to combat the ever-evolving malaria parasite.
The WHO released new numbers on Monday and showed the scale of the problem, with a new method of counting that 627,000 people died of malaria last year, 180,000 more than the total would have been, according to the old methodology.
Nearly 96% of all malaria deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa.
In its annual malaria report, the WHO said that the Doomsday scenario some had predicted at the beginning of the Covid 19 epidemic would double the deaths from malaria as a result of disruption to treatment and services.
Deaths had risen by nearly 70,000 last year, an increase of 12%, of which more than 50,000 were attributable to disruptions during the pandemic. In addition to that, more than a quarter of insecticide-treated bed nets, the backbone of WHO efforts to combat malaria, were not distributed in 2020.
The WHO believes that the vaccine could be a crucial new weapon, even though questions have been raised about its limited efficacy. Over four years of trials, RTS, S was found to prevent 39% of malaria cases and 29% of severe malaria cases.
Alonso rejected the concerns. A reduction of 30% in severe cases of malaria means a massive public health impact, larger than any other vaccine against any other disease being used right now, he said.