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The German biotech group behind one of the most successful Covid-19 vaccines is aiming to develop a more effective vaccine against malaria, one of the world’s deadliest diseases.
Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s co-founder and chief executive, told the Financial Times in an interview that there were “two types of problems” with the existing vaccine. “Either the malaria vaccines don’t work at all, or they work for a short period of time.”
There is only one approved malaria vaccine — Mosquirix — which GlaxoSmithKline spent more than 30 years developing. It is only 39 per cent effective for four years on average.
Sahin’s goal is to develop a malaria vaccine that is 90 per cent effective for one to two years. Any eventual vaccine developed would be sold in Africa on a non-profit basis.
The company will partner with the kENUP Foundation’s programme to eradicate malaria.
As well as working on its own vaccine, BioNTech will also help produce and test other vaccine candidates at facilities in Africa. One promising candidate in mid-stage trials, known as R21, could be the first to meet the World Health Organization’s goal of at least 75 per cent efficacy.
Health officials say the fight to curb malaria has stagnated in recent years. There were 229m cases recorded in 2019, 94 per cent of them in Africa. Of the almost 400,000 people the disease kills a year, about two-thirds are children.
BioNTech shot to fame after its partnership with Pfizer created the first approved vaccine that uses messenger ribonucleic acid — mRNA — which instructs the body to make part of the virus, producing an immune response. The success has sent its shares up 150 per cent in the past year.
Like other coronavirus vaccine makers, BioNTech has come under pressure to give up intellectual property rights to facilitate vaccination programmes in poorer countries. Sahin has argued that this would stifle innovation, and instead promised last month to invest in developing vaccines in Africa.
The company has been working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation since 2019 but the success of mRNA vaccines against Covid-19 was a major boost to efforts to improve global health, Sahin said.
He aims to begin clinical trials for both malaria and tuberculosis vaccine candidates in 2022. But he acknowledged that malaria could prove as difficult to work on as cancer, long a focal point of BioNTech’s research.
“This will not be a home run,” he said “This is a pathogen which is really, really difficult to hack.”
The most successful malaria vaccine candidates to date target the circumsporozite protein. Sahin hopes to test up to 20 vaccine candidates. The advantage of developing vaccines using mRNA, he said, was that it allowed for much easier testing and production of other target proteins.
The project will be funded by BioNTech. Sahin declined to give an exact figure but said the benchmark for early-stage development was between €20m and €50m.