The malaria vaccine isn't super effective. RNA technology might change that.

www.vox.com
8 min read
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There's still a long way to go, but RNA vaccines might help in the fight against malaria.
If you were to nominate an infectious disease for "worst in the world," malaria would probably be a top contender. Every year, it kills more than 400,000 people, most of them children. There's been significant progress in the fight against malaria — before the Covid-19 pandemic, two decades of public health work had driven death rates down by half — but there's still a long way to go.

One avenue for finally getting the upper hand in the fight against malaria? RNA vaccination, using some of the same principles as the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccines. For the past five years, researchers have been working to bring RNA vaccines to the fight against malaria. In 2018, one team at the Yale School of Medicine published early results suggesting that their RNA vaccine approach showed promise — in mice. Last month, a patent was approved for their approach.

What makes the new developments on malaria vaccines especially exciting is that malaria is incredibly difficult to vaccinate against. The disease is carried in mosquito bites and caused by a parasite, typically P. falciparum, and the parasite has a variety of tactics to evade the immune system. For many diseases, once a person has beaten them, they'll never catch them again; this isn't true for malaria — it's possible to catch it over and over.

Despite decades of research, only one malaria vaccine so far has passed muster. It has fairly low efficacy — perhaps around 30 percent — and requires a series of four shots, which makes it a challenge to administer in poor, rural areas where malaria often hits the hardest.

Most vaccines use a dead or inactivated disease agent. RNA vaccines work differently: They inject the RNA instructions that our cells use to produce proteins. The cells then produce the proteins themselves and develop an immune response from there.

There's some reason to think that the RNA approach might produce more durable immunity against a disease like malaria. When the approach was tried…
Kelsey Piper
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