(REUTERS) – BioNTech wants to build on its success in COVID-19 by developing the first vaccine for malaria, based on mRNA technology and aims to start clinical testing by the end on 2022, in an attempt to eradicate the mosquito-borne illness.
The Mainz, Germany-based company, which developed a COVID-19 vaccine with its partner Pfizer in ten months, said on Monday it is also exploring vaccine production in Africa as part of efforts to build up manufacturing capacity on the continent.
“The response to the pandemic has shown that science and innovation can transform people’s lives when all key stakeholders work together towards a common goal,” said BioNTech co-founder and chief medical officer, Oezlem Tuereci.
Scientists around the world have been working for decades to develop a vaccine to prevent malaria that infects millions of people every year and kills more than 400,000 – most of them babies and young children in the poorest parts of Africa.
Malaria is a complex infection caused by a parasite that evades recognition by the immune system, said Ugur Sahin who founded BioNTech with his wife, Tuereci.
“Our goal is to develop a vaccine which makes the malaria parasite visible and attackable by the immune system from the very beginning when it is most vulnerable…so, we plan for success from the very beginning. The second goal of our malaria project is to set up intelligent and sustainable mRNA manufacturing sites using modern digital technologies, This objective is part of our overall strategy to enable people around the world to manufacture our vaccines,” Sahin said.
Messenger RNA vaccines prompt the human body to make a protein that is part of the virus, triggering an immune response. They are also quicker to develop than traditional vaccines and can be adapted relatively easily.
“It would be wonderful to have a vaccine with a stronger platform, more effectiveness, more efficiency,” said WHO Africa director Tshidi Moeti.
The world’s first and only licensed malaria vaccine, Mosquirix, was developed by GlaxoSmithKline over many years of clinical trial across several African countries, but is only around 30% effective.
Researchers at Oxford’s Jenner Institute led by Adrian Hill, one of the lead scientists behind the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, are also developing a potential new malaria vaccine that has shown promise in a year-long trial.
BioNTech said it will assess multiple vaccine candidates that target the circumsporozoite protein (CSP), as well as new antigens discovered in pre-clinical research and select the most promising for a clinical trial due to start by the end of 2022.
The company is also scouting for suitable mRNA vaccine production sites in Africa, either with partners or on its own, and will receive support from the European Commission, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other organizations.
“And I think this really is a historic moment. We may look back at this moment and see it as a transformative pivot point in the fight against malaria,” said the Foundation’s CEO Mark Suzman.
BioNTech also plans to start a clinical trial to test a vaccine candidate for tuberculosis in 2022 and is working with partners to develop vaccines against nine different infectious diseases as well as for cancer.