Germany’s BioNTech, which developed a coronavirus vaccine with US giant Pfizer in record time, said Monday it aimed to start trialling a malaria vaccine next year using the same breakthrough mRNA technology.
If successful, the vaccine could be a crucial step in the fight against the mosquito-borne disease, which kills more than 400,000 people a year — mainly young children in Africa.
“We will do whatever it takes to develop a safe and effective mRNA-based malaria vaccine that will prevent the disease, reduce mortality and ensure a sustainable solution for the African continent and other regions affected by this disease,” BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin said in a statement.
The company said it will assess several vaccine candidates and begin clinical trials by the end of 2022.
The project is backed by the World Health Organization, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Union.
BioNTech said it was also looking at setting up an mRNA hub in Africa so that future vaccines can be manufactured and distributed on the continent.
The planned malaria vaccine would use the same messenger RNA method that made its debut with the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, which was the first jab against Covid to be approved in the West in late 2020.
The coronavirus jab developed by US rival Moderna also uses mRNA technology.
Scientists believe mRNA vaccines, which provoke an immune response by delivering genetic molecules containing the code for key parts of a pathogen into human cells, could be a game-changer against many diseases.
They also take less time to develop than traditional vaccines.
BioNTech’s Covid-19 shot was developed and approved by regulators in less than a year.
“We are witnessing the start of a revolution in medical science, the revolution of messenger RNA,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at Monday’s online launch event.
“Eradicating malaria is now a realistic goal and now we know that it can be achieved already in this generation.”
In a conference call with reporters, Sahin said he believed BioNTech’s malaria efforts have “a high likelihood for success”.
The fight against malaria received a boost in April when researchers from Britain’s Oxford University announced that their Matrix-M vaccine candidate had become the first to surpass the WHO’s threshold of 75-percent efficacy, in a study on infants in Burkina Faso.
A large-scale, final stage trial is ongoing.