Africa will get €10 million ($10.47 million) from the European Commission (EC) to develop a vaccine targeted at preventing placental malaria.
Placental malaria occurs when infected maternal red blood cells accumulate in the placental intervillous space, resulting in stillbirths, low birth weight, preterm birth or babies who are born smaller than usual.
In 2020, approximately 11 million or 34 percent of pregnant women globally were exposed to malaria, accounting for an estimated 200,000 infant deaths annually, 819,000 children with low birthweight and more than 20 percent of all maternal deaths in malaria-endemic areas.
Placental malaria can cause anaemia and high blood pressure in first-time pregnant women, and low birth weight, which are associated with a higher risk of foetal and neonate illness and mortality.
In 2020 according to the World Health Organisation, Africa was home to 95 percent of malaria cases and 96 percent of malaria deaths.
Currently prevention of placental malaria relies on long-lasting insecticide-treated nets and intermittent preventive treatment during pregnancy.
“These interventions however only offer partial protection. The development of an effective vaccine could, therefore, be an attractive tool to control placental malaria on its own, or to complement the existing yet imperfect tools,” said the Advance-VAC4PM consortium that will lead the project.
“With this support from the European Commission, we take a major step towards developing an effective and affordable vaccine against placental malaria, a condition that affects pregnant women in low-income countries, some of the most vulnerable people in the world”, said Executive Director of the European Vaccine Initiative, Ole Olesen.
Scientists from Africa and Europe, led by the European Vaccine Initiative, will spearhead the global effort.
“The development of an effective vaccine would be an outstanding tool to reduce the incidence and severity of placental malaria and protect the mother and unborn child,” they said.
Embedded in the clinical trials will be workshops, training of MSc/PhD students, a mentorship programme for African early career researchers and strengthening of clinical and immunology labs.
The new funding will advance the use of a novel vaccine platform based on capside-virus-like larticles (cVLPs) and evaluation of co-administration of PRIMVAC and PAMVAC-cVLP with the ultimate goal to improve and broaden the vaccine-induced immune response.
Digital tools will be developed for monitoring pregnancy outcomes in preparation of future efficacy trials. Modelling the cost-effectiveness, feasibility and acceptability of placental malaria vaccines will also be conducted.
On the continent Fondation pour la Recherche Scientifique (FORS, Bénin), Groupe de Recherche Action en Santé (GRAS, Burkina Faso, Kintampo Health Research Centre (KHRC, Ghana), and Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST, Malawi), are participating in the research.