WASHINGTON DC, February 17, 2011 – The PATH Malaria Vaccine Initiative (MVI) this week welcomed the appeal by USAID Administrator, Dr. Rajiv Shah, for the funding community to both recommit to defeating malaria and to widen its response to include "the ultimate biomedical answer" — a cheap and effective vaccine.
Citing the need for the United States to "redefine our role in global health," Dr. Shah said it was not acceptable to simply do more of the same when targeting malaria and other diseases that burden developing countries. Instead of only relying on currently available tools, he said that efforts should also focus on the development and timely delivery of new technologies to resource-poor communities, thereby "facilitating a continuum of invention and innovation from bench to bush."
MVI Director, Dr. Christian Loucq, said the appeal for a greater focus on research and development in the response to diseases like malaria underlined "an important reality that has not received the attention it fully deserves."
"The fact that close to 800,000 people still die from — most of them African children who have not celebrated their fifth birthdays— must weigh heavily in the moral and political calculations of those who are eager to protect human lives," said Dr. Loucq. "Any relenting in the effort to finally defeat this disease, particularly when we're closer than ever to a first-generation vaccine, would be an abdication of our responsibility."
Late-stage testing of a vaccine candidate supported by MVI — GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals’ RTS,S — is underway in seven African countries. If this Phase 3 trial confirms data from previous studies, general implementation of the product for infants 6 weeks to 12 weeks old would be possible within five years or so. Earlier tests have shown that RTS,S may cut episodes of clinical malaria in young children by about half.
The USAID administrator, who was addressing the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD on Tuesday, stressed that the hope of sustainably eradicating malaria, preventing TB, and effectively addressing HIV/AIDS will depend on the development of vaccines, which he described as "the best public health investment we can make."
Dr. Shah pledged that USAID will build up its vaccine team to allow the agency to become a leader in developing innovative financial and procurement solutions for vaccines. But in addition to providing funding, he spoke of building on the community-driven approach to malaria control that the United States currently pursues. Extending this approach in the context of vaccines would include tapping the knowledge of field staff — in particular, their understanding of the financial, operational, and behavioral constraints on the ground — to develop target product profiles for vaccine developers.
The USAID administrator insisted that while current malaria-control methods have seen some success, there would be huge consequences if donors — and he particularly referenced the United States — reduced their commitment to assistance.
"If major donors withdrew their support, malaria infections wouldn't hold at current levels; they'd regress, devastating an entire continent, unwinding half a decade of miraculous progress," Dr. Shah said. "So our choice is clear: continue to build on a bipartisan legacy and eliminate malaria as a public health threat, or unwind that progress and put millions of children's lives at risk."