These young children are indeed the most vulnerable group affected by malaria accounting for 67% of all malaria deaths worldwide in 2018. (WMR2019,WHO)
One thing is certain, says Holm Keller, Managing Director of the EU Malaria Fund, if malaria was endemic in Europe, the US, or any other country in the so-called ‘developed’ world, an effective vaccine and alternative treatments would have been found by now.
Developing a vaccine for a disease, such as malaria, is high-risk and hugely expensive, which is why big pharmaceutical companies largely avoid doing so.
“On average, vaccine development costs €1 billion,” notes Keller. “So, even if a pharma company successfully brought a malaria vaccine to market, it still wouldn’t repay their investment.”
What’s needed is a way to de-risk development into novel pharmaceuticals.
Hence the creation of the EU Malaria Fund, a public-private partnership between the European Union, international organisations, corporations, and organised civic society.
Engaging biotechs and balancing risk
“The Fund is a minimally invasive, non-dilutive financing instrument,” explains Keller.
“It invests in a number of small or medium-sized biotech companies (SMEs), with the stipulation that malaria has to be part of their platform.”
On average, vaccine development costs €1 billion. So, even if a pharma company successfully brought a malaria vaccine to market, it still wouldn’t repay their investment.
Investing in a portfolio of research projects (currently 11 companies with 27 independent projects) balances risk and increases the chances of success.
The Fund does not aim to bring the innovations to market directly, however. Instead it supports SMEs until certain proof-of-concept milestones are reached, thus demonstrating the value of the novel product and highlighting the potential of these SMEs to the large multinational pharma companies, which may eventually wish to acquire the company and bring the products to market themselves.
Indeed, this type of platform funding is a way to engage smaller biotechs that would not normally engage in the development of products to prevent, diagnose or treat malaria. “Plus, it allows easy transfer of ideas from academia because, finally, there’s a way to advance promising science beyond grant funding,” says Keller.
“It’s an instrument that may yield important results and could potentially be leveraged in other disease areas where there is a similar market failure.”
Working together for successful anti-malarial development
By pursuing a number of independent projects in the malaria field, the EU Malaria Fund hopes to increase the chances of discovering second-generation vaccines and therapeutics.
The catastrophic COVID-19 pandemic has given the world a new appreciation of vaccines and therapeutics, says Holm Keller, Managing Director of the EU Malaria Fund.
“COVID-19 has increased awareness of infectious diseases,” he says. “It’s critical these diseases are dealt with for the good of public health, starting with the biggest killers. And malaria is one of the biggest.”
This is why the 280 Million Euro Fund is working with a portfolio of small-and-medium-sized companies that are developing a wide range of promising anti-malarial projects.
The remaining six are non-malaria related and focus on other under-served infectious diseases, such as COVID-19.
These are included because the Fund invests in SME’s platform technologies, which explore multiple – rather than single – product candidates.
Investing in a variety of candidates to increase chances of success
“Of the 27 projects, 19 are vaccine candidates, seven are therapeutics and one is a test,” says Keller. “The thinking is that, by supporting 21 malaria related projects, we are 21 times more likely to discover one working anti-malarial product.”
To further increase these chances, it’s important that all projects are different from each other.
So, instead of replicating what has been done before in the malaria field, investment is being directed towards a diversity of new, scientifically sound hypotheses.
Active conversations are ongoing with a number of big pharmaceutical companies that are interested in acquiring the SMEs in the Fund’s portfolio.
Keller is therefore optimistic that this could be a turning point in the fight against malaria.
“I believe that, in three to five years, we will have two second generation malaria vaccines,” he says. “That’s a situation the world has never enjoyed before. In the malaria community, we’re aware that the Fund’s contribution is small — but it may be the ingredient that makes all the difference.”
Author: Tony Greenway
Credit: GLOBAL CAUSE