First Malaria Vaccine Is Approved by WHO

12:08 minutes

four mosquitos on the underside of a net
Mosquitoes used for hosting and transmitting the malaria vaccine. Credit: Stefan Kappe

The malaria parasite is one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases, killing on average about 500,000 people per year—half of them children under the age of 5, nearly all of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

Now, the World Health Organization has finally approved RTS,S or Mosquirix, the first vaccine against Plasmodium falciparum, which is the most deadly strain of the parasite. The vaccine has already been administered via a pilot program to 800,000 children in Kenya, Ghana, and Malawi, and in clinical trials showed an efficacy rate of about 50% against severe disease.  

WNYC’s Nsikan Akpan explains this and other stories, including a climate change-linked Nobel Prize in physics, controversy over the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope, and a new surveillance method that uses only the shadows you cast on a blank wall.

Further Reading

Segment Guests

Nsikan Akpan

Nsikan Akpan is Health and Science Editor for WNYC in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a COVID update and what the US’ response to this pandemic tells us about future ones. But first, another illness that has caused even more death around the world and for far longer– malaria, a parasite that every year kills hundreds of thousands of people, more than half of them children under the age of five. And nearly all of those deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa.

We’ve never had a vaccine approved to fight any parasite in humans, much less this one, but now the World Health Organization has granted a stamp of approval to a malaria vaccine made by pharma company GlaxoSmithKline. Here to talk more about the vaccine and other stories from the week is my guest Nsikan Akpan, health and science editor at WNYC Radio in New York. Welcome back.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Thanks for having me.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s talk about how effective is this vaccine.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Right. Yeah. There’s been some reporting on the RTSS malaria vaccine suggesting that its efficacy is around 50%, but that’s actually not quite right. So a clinical trial in 2015 showed an efficacy of 50% over the first year against malaria cases.

But the longer term efficacy is probably closer to 20% to 30% against cases in severe disease. 20% to 30% probably doesn’t sound that great next to the 90% that we’ve been seeing with the COVID-19 19 but, worldwide, if there are 200 million cases and about 400,000 deaths per year and the malaria vaccine’s efficacy reduces the odds of those things happening by 30%, then you’d be preventing about 60 million cases or 120,000 deaths in an ideal world where you can vaccinate everyone who’s at risk at the exact same time.

But I think a more realistic prediction for sub-Saharan Africa where we see 90% of these cases, when you account for logistics and the time it would take to put doses in people’s arms, and we’re talking about four doses for this particular vaccine, you would see probably cases fall by like five million annually and deaths by 24,000 annually. But that’s still a lot. Right? That’s a lot of people to save.

IRA FLATOW: People must be very excited about this. I mean why has malaria taken so long to develop a vaccine for?

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. It’s tough. I think part of it comes down to economics. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus that is affecting the entire population of the planet, there’s just going to be a lot more drive to develop that type of vaccine.

When you look at malaria, it is concentrated in sub-Saharan Africa. I think when it’s concentrated in those places where you have a lot of low income countries, there’s just going to be less of an economic incentive for companies to produce a vaccine. I think the other part is that you’re dealing with a parasite. And parasites are multicellular. They’re just more complex organisms than a virus like the coronavirus. And for that reason, parasites tend to be better at evading our immune system so it can be tough.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to your next story. And of course, it deals with it’s Nobel Prize week. There have been the usual early morning announcements coming from Sweden. But the one I want to talk about is the physics prize. It stands out a bit, namely because the Nobel folks singled out climate change to give the prize for, for people working in climate change.

NSIKAN AKPAN: What’s interesting about this year’s Nobel Prize is that it reminds us that, even with chaos, there can sometimes be order. So in the 1960s, Syukuro Manabe tamed some of this chaos and built what the Nobel committee considered to be the first computer model to explore the connection between heat from the sun and the vertical movement of air through the atmosphere, which influences weather.

So for example, post-Tropical Storm Ida dumped all of that rain on New York and New Jersey, it was actually because a cold front in our region caused Ida’s moist, hot air to suddenly vault upward into the sky. And that caused like a ton of precipitation to just fall on us. Manabe’s research also showed how increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can lead to increased temperatures at the surface of the Earth, which is a cornerstone of confirming the greenhouse gas effect.

His work set the table for future models, which included one by one of his co-owners, Klaus Hasselmann, about 10 years later that showed how climate connects to our chaotic weather patterns. So climate is what happens over months and years. Weather is the mess that we experience from day to day. Hasselmann was able to formulate calculations that bridge the two things.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think that the Nobel committee went out of its way to give the prize for climate change to give their seal of approval that climate change is a real thing and the science is real?

NSIKAN AKPAN: I do. I mean I think the Nobel committee awards prizes for basic science. But in less than a month, the UN is going to be holding a climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland. And the timing is pretty interesting that they would award this prize ahead of that conference. There’s a lot of momentum right now around climate change, especially in terms of feelings among young adults.

So Karen Kirk at Yale Climate Connections wrote an interesting story this week about a new study looking at climate anxiety in younger generations. And so in a nutshell, young people from 10 countries around the globe are mad as heck and are not going to take it anymore. So worldwide, about 60% of these people– and they were from 16 to 25 in terms of age– they feel betrayed by their government. That’s how they expressed it.

And I think the pandemic comes into play there too in that the pandemic has actually ushered in this global transfer of wealth to younger generations, or it’s accelerated it. So baby boomers are starting to retire. The fact that COVID-19 hit that generation so hard, a lot of baby boomers stopped working. They don’t want to go to their jobs because it’s a little more dangerous for them.

And so you’re seeing younger generations step into these managerial roles at a faster rate. And so I think that transfer of wealth could be huge in the future in terms of addressing climate change because the people who will have the most money will also be the ones who are most concerned about the trajectory of the planet.

IRA FLATOW: All right. Let’s move on to something that may be finally happening. We’re talking about the upcoming launch of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. You know, it’s been put off so many times. We talked about it a few weeks ago when it was in transit to the launch site and might finally have a launch date. Right.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Right. The James Webb telescope has been in planning and production since 1989 so for a very, very long time. It was originally scheduled to launch between 2007 and 2011 but it got delayed over and over again due to technical issues, which is sort of fine tuning the instruments and getting it ready to take off and also like a series of budget crises.

The project has been way over budget. It originally was only supposed to cost about $5.1 billion and now it’s expected to be about $10 billion. And for anybody interested in this story, they should really check out Lisa Grossman’s reporting at Science News Magazine. She has a great breakdown of how the James Webb telescope can help us study really interesting phenomena in the universe such as dark energy. But it’s also been hit with these massive setbacks.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. When it gets launched, we’ll probably do a really good in-depth coverage of what it’s supposed to do, but it is not going to be the same as the Hubble and look at different things. Let’s talk about, ironically, that, with all the controversy around the launch date, there’s now controversy about the name of the telescope. James Webb is less popular than NASA would have hoped.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. So he’s come under fire for potentially targeting gay and lesbian people when he was NASA administrator back in the 1950s and ’60s. And so NASA, when they learned of a petition which included scientists and collected hundreds of names, it said, OK, we’re going to conduct an investigation and we’re going to really look into what happened in this time period when James Webb was in charge of our agency.

It then came out with a report in the past couple of weeks where it said, oh, we didn’t find anything but we’re actually not going to release the full details of what we investigated and what we actually found. There’s a really good story in Nature News that people should look at that really runs through the history of what happened and what sort of the mystery around this investigation right now. In truth, we’re still in the midst of this social reckoning right now. And I think the energy around this petition and the energy around wanting to rename this telescope comes directly from that.

IRA FLATOW: And one last story, I don’t know whether to say neato or oh no about this one. And this is a new way to figure out what people are doing based on their shadows. This is science fiction. It sounds like something out of Mission Impossible or something.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yes. Sophie Wishwick at Scientific American spotted this really interesting study and new piece of technology that is in the computer vision realm. So essentially, this team developed algorithms that can track people’s shadows against a blank wall and determine what activities they’re doing based off their shadows. Creepy would be one word for it. But I feel like computer vision is sort of doing this all the time.

I remember one story I edited last year about how algorithms were being developed to determine whether or not a person was wearing a mask, which could be useful if you just have CCTV footage of an office space and you want to know who is being compliant with wearing a mask indoors, especially if a big outbreak happens there.

But yeah, I think the eerie creepy part of this story is, OK, what’s the application for this? Are you going to try to figure out what people are doing in a room by I guess discretely having a camera in a corner that doesn’t necessarily have to point directly at them but can figure out what they’re doing by the shadows on the wall, or is this an application that you could put in a car with smart technology that allows it to detect when a child might be riding a bicycle towards an intersection just based off of the shadow and prevent a potential accident from happening?

So yeah. It’s an interesting story. I think people should check it out. But yeah, it will make your skin crawl just a little bit.

IRA FLATOW: Well, it’s just in time for Halloween, Nsikan. Good story to end with. Thank you for taking time to be with us today.

NSIKAN AKPAN: Yeah. I appreciate it any time.

IRA FLATOW: Nsikan Akpan is health and science editor at WNYC Radio in New York. We have to take a short break. When we come back, is a new antiviral pill against COVID a game changer? We’ll talk about it. Stay with us. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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