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Malaria vaccine pushed by PATH and Gates shows some success

Children in the RTS,S malaria vaccine trial wait with their parents at a hospital in Tanzania on June 28, 2011.
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Children in the RTS,S malaria vaccine trial wait with their parents at a hospital in Tanzania on June 28, 2011.

Leaders at the Seattle non-profit group PATH – and their sponsors at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation– say they’re excited about the latest results from a malaria vaccine trial in Africa. The interim results don't guarantee it will be a success, but it’s the best any malaria vaccine has ever done.

The RTS,S malaria vaccine protects about half the children who get it (47 percent from severe malaria, and 56 percent from clinical malaria). While that’s not nearly as good as vaccines against other diseases, such as measles or even the flu, it's just over the threshold to be useful in Africa.

“The results being made available today do represent a huge milestone,” said Bill Gates, announcing the results himself at a malaria conference in Seattle. "I want to congratulate the large number of partners who've been working on this project for decades."

The results were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

27-year journey

The Gates Foundation is a major funder of the vaccine research. PATH coordinated the study, as the leader of the Malaria Vaccine Initiative.

Work on this particular malaria vaccine started 27 years ago in Europe. The Gates Foundation and PATH adopted it a decade ago and started intense work to make it a reality. They hope to finish the clinical trials in Tanzania in about three years. Still, it’s not certain it will meet the minimum standards to be both effective and safe.

The vaccine is designed to protect young children from malaria – as they account for most of the nearly 800,000 annual deaths from the disease.

Malaria is caused by a parasite that lives in mosquitoes and humans. It was eliminated from the U.S. decades ago. It can be cured with modern drugs, but those have proven expensive and impractical to use in countries where malaria is rampant.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.