The head of the University of Oxford's pioneering vaccine research centre has revealed that a highly effective shot to combat malaria is “nearly at the finish line”.
Prof Adrian Hill, director at the Jenner Institute, says his team's shot — named the R21/Matrix-M ― could protect against the disease and save thousands of lives every year.
The pioneering drug is currently undergoing high-level research trials in Africa, where malaria kills at a rate of almost one child a minute.
The mosquito-borne disease has seen a resurgence in recent years and is estimated to have killed 620,000 people around the world in 2020, according to the World Health Organisation.
Prof Hill made the comments during a field visit for Phase III trials of R21/Matrix-M in northern Tanzania. Some 4,800 children are involved in clinical trials across Africa and it is hoped an update on the research progress will be released soon.
Results of the Phase II trials released last year showed a high-level efficacy of 77 per cent — slightly above a WHO-specified efficacy goal of 75 per cent.
Scientists say if the drug receives approval, hundreds of millions of doses could be available to help stop the threat of malaria.
“This is what it has all been leading up to,” Mr Hill told the The Times. “People have been at this since 1908.”
The Jenner Institute focuses on designing and developing vaccines for infectious diseases prevalent in developing countries, such as HIV/Aids, malaria and tuberculosis.
Following the outbreak of coronavirus, the team turned its extensive resources and expertise to help create the AstraZeneca's Covid-19 vaccine which has now been delivered to millions of people across the world.
Ireland-born Prof Hill last year suggested the vaccine should be given the same emergency approval as Covid-19 shots, instead of waiting years for full trials to be completed.
“Nobody’s really ever asked that question before Covid, but we’re going to do so, and have been doing so, and regulators are sounding interested,” he said.
Before 2020, the world had made steady progress on the transmission and treatment of malaria, chiefly through the use of insecticide-treated mosquito nets, testing and effective drugs.
Annual cases had fallen by 27 per cent by 2017 compared with the start of the century and deaths had plunged by over 50 per cent.
Some 241 million cases of malaria disease were recorded worldwide in 2020, 14 million more than a year earlier, according to the WHO.
Sub-Saharan Africa is where 95 per cent of all malaria cases and 96 per cent of all deaths occur.