This past week the health community made tremendous strides towards global eradication of malaria and the hundreds of thousands of deaths the disease causes each year. The GlaxoSmithKline-funded and Gates Foundation-endorsed drug, RTS,S (commercial name, Mosquirix) was unveiled last Tuesday. This miracle malaria vaccine’s claim to fame, according to small preliminary trials previously done in Africa, is that it was found to have halved the risk of children becoming infected.
While this is wonderful news for the millions of people at risk of contracting malaria, the vaccine is still undergoing larger clinical trials at 11 health research centers in 8 African countries (Malawi, Ghana, Gabon, Burkina Faso, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania and Senegal). The vaccine will be tested on 5-18 month old children and would not be released commercially until 2014, at the earliest.
The famously generous Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is playing a huge role in the funding and development of continued research on the vaccine, but the pharmaceutical giant, GlaxoSmithKline(GSK) is the manufacturer and financial benefactor of the research and eventual production of the drug. Again, RTS,S may be an extraordinary success for global health. However, I can’t help but think of two possible problems with the release of this vaccine: accessibility and affordability. My hope is that GSK will make the vaccine affordable and accessible for those who need it most. My fear is that the vaccine will share the same fate as antiretroviral treatment, the drug treatment used to enhance and extend the lives of people living with HIV. Antiretroviral treatment, although extremely effective, remains inaccessible and unaffordable to many people living with the virus.
RTS,S, even in its early stages, is a huge step towards the eradication of malaria. Even if the vaccination’s effectiveness peaks at 50%, RTS,S will reduce malaria-related deaths in children by half. To guarantee that this life-saving vaccine is used to its fullest potential, GSK, the Gates Foundation, governments and the global community must understand that the development of a vaccine is not a success unless its affordability and accessibility is ensured for all.