This op-ed was originally published for Media Planet’s Malaria and Neglected Tropical Diseases campaign on 25 April 2022.
We must make up ground lost in the fight against malaria during the COVID-19 pandemic. Innovation in vaccines and treatment offer hope for solutions.
From 2019 to 2020, there was a 12.4% increase in malaria deaths. Approximately two-thirds of these deaths were linked to COVID-19 disruptions, but pandemics cannot be an excuse for lost progress. If anything, COVID-19 has provided greater perspective and urgency to tackle the threat of malaria in endemic countries.
Development of groundbreaking malaria vaccine
Disruptions to malaria prevention, treatment and care keep people in endless cycles of poverty. Children in sub-Saharan Africa, the region with the most deaths from malaria, are particularly vulnerable. New estimates suggest a child is dying nearly every minute from this disease.
The result of 30 years of research and development by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), PATH, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as a network of African research centres, the first malaria vaccine was developed. The vaccine could help save the lives of tens of thousands of African children below the age of five who die from malaria every year. Technologies developed for COVID-19, such as mRNA vaccines, offer hope for an even more effective vaccine.
As we’ve seen with COVID-19, vaccines are impactful only when they result in vaccinations. International programmes to roll out these vaccines, alongside existing preventative interventions like insecticide-treated bed nets and timely testing and treatment, can help reinvigorate a global response.
Responding to the crisis with novel therapies
New technologies that allow for once-a-week or single-dose treatment are advancing our arsenal for global malaria response. For instance, GSK and Medicines for Malaria Venture have developed a new formulation that allows one dose of tafenoquine to be dispersed and consumed in a glass of water. Novartis and Sanofi are working on fixed-dose combination therapies to address drug-resistant malaria and improve cost effectiveness.
As a consequence of the climate crisis, malaria can become a global health security threat, exposing people in new areas to this mosquito-borne parasite. Through continuous innovation, we can alter our readiness to absorb the impact of malaria in newly warmer places, both through protective vaccines and easier-to-use, effective malaria treatments.
We can end the COVID-19 pandemic, prepare for future pandemics and accelerate progress on longstanding epidemics like malaria. Innovation to develop and deploy new vaccines and treatments against malaria is a gamechanger in this shifting landscape.