Guardian article: The 30-year quest for a malaria vaccine
Dr Joe Cohen recalls his experiences of being part of the team that has worked for almost three decades to develop what could be the world’s first vaccine against malaria
No vaccine exists against malaria. Finding a vaccine is challenging because the plasmodium falciparum parasite, which causes the deadliest form of malaria in humans, is capable of adapting to the human host and escaping its immune responses. But 30 years after research began, the team I worked with is closer than ever to developing a vaccine that could help protect young children in Africa from malaria. Now I am retired, I feel fortunate to have been associated with this work.
During one of these studies, the reality of the human burden of malaria became even more obvious. In the late 1990s, I visited The Gambia as we were preparing to test RTS,S in people in Africa for the first time. In the children’s ward of the local hospital, the 20 or so beds were each often occupied by two or three tiny children – most of them seriously ill with malaria. Their mothers sat beside them, clearly despondent and almost resigned: many told us they had already lost a child to this dreadful disease. The visit starkly illustrated what malaria meant for the local population and gave even more meaning and urgency to our work.
The Gambia study, conducted in 1999, demonstrated that the vaccine was effective in African adult volunteers and in 2004 our collaborators in Mozambique demonstrated the efficacy of the vaccine candidate in African children. These and other studies paved the way for the start of our final-stage study, Phase 3, in 2009 – a crucial step towards the registration of the vaccine candidate. To get this far would have been a dream only 10 or 15 years ago. We couldn’t grasp that it would actually happen. That was a tremendously big moment for all of us.