Paolo Rossi Castelli 20 May 2021 6 min read

At last, an effective vaccine against malaria

The preliminary results of an important experiment on a new drug conducted by Oxford University showed 77% of vaccinated children were immune.

Research into all vaccines, not just those for Covid 19, is seeing an exceptional surge due to the enormous cashflow it has “attracted” in recent years, and to heightened awareness of viral and bacterial threats, whether already present or future ones.

Confirmation of this comes in the form of a breakthrough which might finally make it possible to halt malaria, a disease which continues to kill no less than 270,000 children each year, and 400,000 people in total, particularly in tropical areas of Africa, South America and Asia.

The result was achieved - thanks to funding from the European Union - by the same group from the Jenner Institute for Infectious Diseases which also yielded the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, in conjunction with Oxford University.

The new malaria vaccine, called R21/Matrix-M, is based on a different principle to the one harnessed by the Covid vaccine (which uses a modified chimpanzee virus to induce the body’s immune response towards the coronavirus protein spike).

In the case of the malaria vaccine, the Oxford researchers used an inactivated Hepatitis B virus as a carrier. This was cultivated in a yeast into which the genetic information needed to produce a fragment of protein from the plasmodium (the protozoa which causes malaria) was inserted. The most difficult part was choosing the right protein, given the complex nature the plasmodium’s lifecycle (there are many different types) and its highly aggressive way of “infesting” the body. The final product was then reinforced with an adjuvant to enhance its ability to stimulate the immune system.

Experimentation in Burkina Faso

The R21 vaccine was administered in two doses to 300 children aged between 5 and 17 months in Burkina Faso, whilst 150 more new-borns in a benchmark (or control group, to use the technical term) were given an anti-rabies jab.

The children were immunised in 2019 before the time of year at greatest risk of malaria, between May and August; they were then monitored for one year.

In the end, the protection was 71% with the lower dose, and 77% with the higher one: a result never achieved before by the many other vaccine prototypes (over one hundred in total) produced or at least studied in recent years. Above all, it was well above the World Health Organization’s threshold for a vaccine to be deemed effective, which is 75%.

No noteworthy undesirable effects were recorded. The results, whilst still preliminary, were published on a website of the authoritative Lancet, and were considered so positive that the children taking part in the experiment have already received a booster jab, about a year after the first. In the meantime, recruitment for the next phase of testing has got underway; it will be conducted on 4,800 children aged between 5 and 36 months, from four African countries.

A production chain in the wings

If the results confirm what has been seen thus far, the Serum Institute of India (one of the world’s largest vaccine companies) is ready to produce no less than 200 million doses of R21, thanks also to a partnership with American company Novavax, which will manufacture the adjuvant. The prices will be kept very low.

During 2019, no less than 229 million cases of malaria were recorded worldwide. According to EpiCentre, the epidemiology site of Italy’s Superior health Institute, six African countries (Nigeria, the Democratic republic of Congo, the United Republic of Tanzania, Mozambique, Niger and Burkina Faso) alone reported over 50% of all deaths from this disease.


Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.