How big a difference will the world's first malaria vaccine make?

By 2015, GlaxoSmithKline hopes to market the world's first malaria vaccine. But a lot more needs to be done to tackle a disease that kills 660,000 people a year.

The UK company GlaxoSmithKline is hoping that by 2015 it will be able to introduce the world’s first malaria vaccine. In clinical trials, the vaccine halved the number of cases of malaria in babies aged five to seven months, and reduced by a quarter the number of cases in babies aged six to twelve weeks. This means it isn’t a miracle cure for the mosquito-borne disease that WHO estimates kills 660,000 people a year, but it could still make a huge difference – malaria is the fifth biggest killer of under-fives globally.

There are still obstacles to overcome before the vaccine can be introduced. It will need to be approved by health regulators, international donors will have to agree to fund the vaccine, and WHO will have to co-ordinate a plan for rolling-out vaccination programmes.

In 2004 a group of malaria experts wrote a damning report in the medical journal, Lancet, accusing WHO of contributing to unnecessary malaria deaths because of its slowness to replace failing malaria drugs with newer more effective treatments. The hope is that WHO has taken these criticisms on board and has become nimbler and more responsive to change. But while researching an article on drug-resistant malaria, a number of experts told me they were frustrated with WHO’s slow and unwieldy bureaucracy. “WHO, like any other UN organisation, has enormous problems. It’s primarily a political organisation, not a technical organisation, and it’s basically shown weak leadership in recent years, in many areas,” Dr Nick White, chairman of the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok, told me.

There is also hope that this latest discovery will pave the way for the development of more effective malaria vaccinations, but researchers often find that funding is hard to come by. Selling anti-malarials to the poor isn’t especially lucrative for drug companies – and in fact, globally, more money is spent on treating male baldness than malaria.

There’s a new urgency to this work to develop a vaccine too, because in parts of South East Asia, malaria is becoming resistance to artemisinin, the most effective anti-malarial drug to date. Experts at the World Malaria Conference 2012 predicted that if artemisinin resistance spreads to Africa, where the incidence of malaria is much higher, global malaria deaths will increase by 25%. NGOs and governments in South East Asia are doing their best to contain drug resistance, by increasing the use of mosquito nets and improving access to high-quality malaria drugs. The recent discovery of drug-resistant malaria on the Thai-Burma border, however, suggests that drug-resistant malaria is spreading despite containment efforts.

If drug-resistant malaria continues to spread in this way, developing an effective vaccine for malaria might be our best bet. GlaxoSmithKline’s discovery is a big step forward, but without sufficient political will and funding, we could still lose the battle against malaria.

A laboratory technician prepares blood samples to test for malaria. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Beware, hard Brexiteers - Ruth Davidson is coming for you

The Scottish Conservative leader is well-positioned to fight. 

Wanted: Charismatic leader with working-class roots and a populist touch who can take on the Brexiteers, including some in the government, and do so convincingly.

Enter Ruth Davidson. 

While many Tory MPs quietly share her opposition to a hard Brexit, those who dare to be loud tend to be backbenchers like Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan. 

By contrast, the Scottish Conservative leader already has huge credibility for rebuilding her party north of the border. Her appearances in the last days of the EU referendum campaign made her a star in the south as well. And she has no qualms about making a joke at Boris Johnson’s expense

Speaking at the Institute of Directors on Monday, Davidson said Brexiteers like Nigel Farage should stop “needling” European leaders.

“I say to the Ukip politicians, when they chuckle and bray about the result in June, grow up,” she declared. “Let us show a bit more respect for these European neighbours and allies.”

Davidson is particularly concerned that Brexiteers underestimate the deeply emotional and political response of other EU nations. 

The negotiations will be 27 to 1, she pointed out: “I would suggest that macho, beer swilling, posturing at the golf club bar isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

At a time when free trade is increasingly a dirty word, Davidson is also striking in her defence of the single market. As a child, she recalls, every plate of food on the table was there because her father, a self-made businessman, had "made stuff and sold it abroad". 

She attacked the Daily Mail for its front cover branding the judges who ruled against the government’s bid to trigger Article 50 “enemies of the people”. 

When the headline was published, Theresa May and Cabinet ministers stressed the freedom of the press. By contrast, Davidson, a former journalist, said that to undermine “the guardians of our democracy” in this way was “an utter disgrace”. 

Davidson might have chosen Ukip and the Daily Mail to skewer, but her attacks could apply to certain Brexiteers in her party as well. 

When The Staggers enquired whether this included the Italy-baiting Foreign Secretary Johnson, she launched a somewhat muted defence.

Saying she was “surprised by the way Boris has taken to the job”, she added: “To be honest, when you have got such a big thing happening and when you have a team in place that has been doing the preparatory work, it doesn’t make sense to reshuffle the benches."

Nevertheless, despite her outsider role, the team matters to Davidson. Part of her electoral success in Scotland is down the way she has capitalised on the anti-independence feeling after the Scottish referendum. If the UK heads for a hard Brexit, she too will have to fend off accusations that her party is the party of division. 

Indeed, for all her jibes at the Brexiteers, Davidson has a serious message. Since the EU referendum, she is “beginning to see embryos of where Scotland has gone post-referendum”. And, she warned: “I do not think we want that division.”


Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.