BioNTech to use mRNA technology against malaria

BERLIN (AP) – Pharmaceutical company BioNTech said Monday it wants to use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology used in its COVID-19 vaccine to fight malaria.

The Germany-based company, which developed a pioneering coronavirus vaccine together with its US partner Pfizer, intends to begin clinical trials of a “safe and highly effective malaria vaccine” by the end of next year.

“We are working on HIV and tuberculosis; malaria is the third major disease with a huge unmet medical need, ”BioNTech CEO Ugur Sahin told The Associated Press. “It has a high number of people who become infected every year and patients who die. It is a particularly serious disease with a high mortality rate in young children ”.

According to the World Health Organization, in 2019 there were some 229 million cases of malaria worldwide. The world body estimates that 409,000 people died of malaria that year, and that children under 5 years of age accounted for 67% of the deaths.

Sahin acknowledged that the plan is at a very early stage and that there is no guarantee of success, but said the company believes it is “the best time to tackle this challenge” due to the knowledge it has gained from developing an mRNA vaccine against the new coronavirus and understanding how malaria works.

However, experts say that developing a vaccine that primes the immune system against malaria will be difficult.

“The genome of Plasmodium, the parasite that causes malaria, is more complex than that of viruses,” said Prakash Srinivasan, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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A malaria vaccine developed by drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline that is already being tested in three African countries has shown that inducing strong and long-lasting antibody levels is challenging, he noted.

Existing and future variants of the parasite could also pose a challenge in developing an effective vaccine, added Srinivasan, whose lab is also working on developing a malaria vaccine.

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