BioNTech scientists plan to wipe out malaria

Coronavirus vaccine creators aim to use messenger RNA technology to tackle disease

epaselect epa06689943 A woman installs a mosquito net over her child in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, 24 April 2018. World Malaria Day is observed on 25 April each year to recognize the global efforts to control Malaria, it was established in May 2007 by the World Health Organization (WHO).  EPA-EFE/LEGNAN KOULA

Scientists who pioneered the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine plan to use the technology to eradicate malaria.

The messenger RNA (mRNA) technology behind the vaccine proved spectacularly successful in turning the tide against the pandemic.

The founders of German company BioNTech now want to put it to work against malaria in what was hailed on Monday as a potential breakthrough.

In another innovation, they want manufacturing to take place in Africa, the continent most affected by malaria.

The lack of vaccine production in Africa has been a cause of friction during the Covid pandemic, with wealthy countries accused of hoarding doses.

More than 90 per cent of the world’s malaria cases, which kill about 400,000 people per year, are reported in Africa. Most of the victims are young children.

There is only one vaccine against the mosquito-borne disease, Mosquirix, and its effectiveness is less than 50 per cent.

Ozlem Tureci, the co-founder and chief medical officer of BioNTech, said mRNA vaccines had withstood the “baptism of fire” they received in the pandemic.

“We are committed to bringing our innovations to those who need them most. Thus, malaria is an obvious next mission for us,” she said.

“It may sound impossible to achieve this within a few years. But, as Nelson Mandela said, it always sounds impossible until it’s done.”

Her husband Ugur Sahin, the chief executive of BioNTech, said he wanted to ensure a sustainable supply of the vaccine for Africa if it proves effective.

BioNTech’s efforts would include setting up manufacturing facilities and providing technical expertise to vaccine producers in Africa, he said.

The gap in vaccination coverage between Africa and the rich world has frequently been criticised by activists and the World Health Organisation.

Ozlem Tureci (L) and her husband Ugur Sahin, both scientists and founders of BioNTech, pose with their orders after they were awarded the Federal Cross of Merit (Bundesverdienstkreuz) by the German President on March 19, 2021 at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin. / AFP / POOL / Odd ANDERSEN

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, said the EU supported efforts to increase Africa’s manufacturing capacity.

“For decades, science has worked hard to eradicate malaria,” she said. “Finally, a breakthrough may be at hand.

“In these months, the whole world has seen the power of the mRNA technology pioneered by BioNTech and others. The mRNA technology can be a game-changer in the fight against other diseases too, including malaria.”

BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine works by giving the body instructions on how to make the virus’s distinctive spikes.

Recognising the spikes as intruders, the immune system will make antibodies to fight them, and then be ready when it encounters the real virus.

The coronavirus vaccine was more than 90 per cent effective in trials and real-world data has shown similar results.

Mr Sahin said that BioNTech would “do whatever it takes” to apply the technology to malaria.

The project is part of an initiative called Eradicate Malaria, which is supported by the World Health Organisation.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, said the agency welcomed the new project.

It “looks forward to supporting African countries as they develop, trial and produce vaccines against deadly infectious diseases like malaria”, he said.

Updated: July 27th 2021, 10:24 AM
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