PATH Malaria Vaccines Initiative nets $156M from Gates Foundation

Ashley Birkett, director of the Malaria Vaccine Initiative

Malaria and the mosquitoes that carry it may soon have more to contend with than mosquito nets and insecticides, thanks to the PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) and a $156 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The award, announced Sunday by foundation co-chair Bill Gates in a speech at the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene's annual meeting, will be used to focus on two types of vaccines: anti-infection vaccines (AIVs), which prevent people bitten by malaria mosquitoes from getting ill, and transmission-blocking vaccines (TBVs), which stop infected people from transmitting the parasite to mosquitoes. In particular, MVI will be focusing on vaccines that combine these two attributes, it said in a statement.

As Ashley Birkett, director of the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, told FierceVaccines, malaria parasites are becoming more and more drug-resistant, and the mosquitoes that carry them are developing a greater resistance to insecticides. And tools like bed nets don't address the human reservoirs of malaria, or people who have developed a natural immunity to malaria after multiple infections. These people harbor the parasite in their bodies, but do not present any symptoms.

Enter the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, which is looking to create new malaria vaccines to disrupt this cycle of malaria transmission.

There is currently no malaria vaccine for clinical use. GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) candidate, RTS,S, on which it partnered with the MVI, has the potential to become the first human vaccine ever against malaria and parasitic disease; Glaxo submitted RTS,S for assessment by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the WHO in July this year. However, Birkett said, RTS,S is designed to prevent only clinical malaria and it is, at this point, being developed for young African children among whom malaria mortality is the largest. Like the bed nets, it doesn't reduce the human reservoir of malaria.

While transmission-blocking vaccines could potentially go where GSK's can't, "malaria vaccines are not the whole answer, but they are part of the answer," Birkett said. There are many tools currently being deployed to fight malaria, including bed nets, indoor spraying of insecticides, rapid diagnostics and drugs to treat people when they become sick. But some of the tools may not be as effective in the future, which is why the MVI is looking for new tools to control and eradicate malaria. "[A vaccine] is not a magic bullet," Birkett said.

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