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WHO Approves First Malaria Vaccine: Why Did It Take So Long?

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The World Health Organization approved the first malaria vaccine and parasitic vaccine, GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) RTS,S, also known as Mosquirix, for widespread use on Oct. 6. 

During GSK’s pilot program in Ghana, Kenya and Malawi, Mosquirix successfully cut malaria rates by 40% and decreased hospitalizations by a third.

Malaria kills more than 400,000 people annually. The parasite is the largest cause of child mortality in Sub-saharan Africa, with 260,000 children under the age of five dying each year.

Given that the malaria vaccine has been under development since the 1960s, this is historic news.

If malaria has been such a pressing issue, then why did it take so long to create a vaccine, and why don’t we hear more coverage on this development?

Capitalism and eurocentrism are behind the general public’s lack of awareness as well as corporate investment in the development of the malaria vaccine.

Once malaria was eradicated in Europe during the mid-20th century, the disease began to primarily affect developing countries in Africa, where 95% of all current cases occur. Malaria is not unlike any other matter; issues in “westernized” countries typically take the front seat in public awareness since the wealthy in those regions generally have the greatest influence on health science research. Corporations like those in drug research are profit driven.

Malaria vaccine development has suffered from a lack of a widespread market, resulting in less funding and fewer research initiatives. This dynamic becomes especially clear when comparing investments in COVID-19 research to malaria research. The U.S. alone contributed $9 billion to COVID-19 vaccine development in the past year, whereas only $7.3 billion has been contributed worldwide to malaria vaccine development in the span of 11 years.

COVID-19 vaccines are an attractive investment because the virus affects people living in high-income countries — that is, places where there is a higher market demand for the vaccines. In contrast, a malaria vaccine is a significantly less attractive investment, given that the vaccine’s consumers would be in low-income countries such as Nigeria, The DRC, Tanzania, Burkina Faso, Mozambique and Niger, where malaria incidences are the highest. While malaria and COVID-19 are both crisis-driven and highly supported by government agencies and non-profit organizations, it’s ultimately the individuals with financial resources that dominate the decisions of corporations.

This capitalist trend isn’t limited to disease prevention. More funding is put into research of medical treatment for male baldness than the malaria vaccine. Founder of The Gates Foundation Bill Gates made this comparison at the Global Grand Challenges Summit 2013.

“The malaria vaccine in humanist terms is the biggest need. But it gets virtually no funding. But if you are working on male baldness or other things, you get an order of magnitude more research funding because of the voice in the marketplace than something like malaria,” Gates said.

On top of all this, investing in parasitic vaccines is risky because they are significantly more difficult to develop than virus vaccines; higher risk means high chances of financial failure. Parasites have incredibly complex life cycles and genetics, producing thousands of antigens. Additionally, malaria specifically has been mutating for 30 million years. After a person has contracted malaria, they can only acquire partial immunity — unlike a virus. Ultimately, this requires more research and funding.

While corporations are always going to be partial to issues concerning more “westernized” countries, public attention can still significantly impact what issues they invest in. Tens of millions of lives have already been lost in Africa due to malaria, and this breakthrough brings us much closer to developing a highly reliable vaccine. As Mosquirix currently has an efficiency rate of 40%, there is still compelling reason to care about the malaria epidemic in Africa and push corporations to invest in vaccine research. 

Erika Cao is an Opinion Intern for the fall 2021 quarter. She can be reached at caoea@uci.edu.