TOPICS > Health

Vaccine Could Become ‘Another Very Powerful Weapon’ to Fight Malaria

October 18, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
An experimental vaccine against malaria, an oftentimes-deadly disease that half the world is exposed to, is still in trials, but it could be in production by 2015. Jeffrey Brown discusses the potential impact of the vaccine with GlaxoSmithKline CEO Andrew Witty.

JEFFREY BROWN: And joining me to discuss that is Andrew Witty, CEO of GlaxoSmithKline, which makes the vaccine.

For the record, the trials were funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which funds the NewsHour’s Global Health Unit.

Mr. Witty, just for context, what is it about the fight against malaria that makes even a 50 percent reduction so promising? That’s far less, for example, than vaccines against polio or measles.

ANDREW WITTY, GlaxoSmithKline: Well, it’s an important question.

And I think there are really two aspects to the answer. First of all, this 50 percent reduction is on top of all of the benefits which have already been achieved with everything we’re doing with bed net prevention and other preventative measures. So if there’s already a lot being achieved. There is a further incremental benefit.

And then a second thing that is easy to forget sometimes when we don’t live in Africa is just how prevalent malaria is. A tremendous number of children are exposed continuously to this disease. So, the 50 percent reduction leads to huge numbers of reduced cases. As an example, in this trial, if we look at a typical 1,000 children, in a 12-month period, they will suffer from something like 1,500 clinical malaria events.

Some children have more than one event. When they took the vaccine, we were able to reduce that to 750. And it just gives you an idea of the absolutely incredible prevalence, how common malaria actually is.

When I go to Africa — I was recently in Kisumu in Kenya — almost every hospital bed has a child with malaria in it. So, if we could reduce by 50 percent, you’re freeing up half of the hospital beds in those villages.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this study tested children five to 17 months of age. You still need to test this for even younger children, right? When would you want to give this vaccine? What age?

ANDREW WITTY: Well, so it could be given at the age we have tested, clearly. But to fit with the — if you will, with the everyday vaccination schedules for things like measles, mumps, that kind of thing, those vaccination schedules take place much earlier in life, maybe from six weeks onwards.

So that’s the other group that we’re looking at in this trial. We will get that data towards the end of 2012. If we see similarly promising results there, then what that means is that we have a viable vaccine which can then be slotted into the current vaccination schedules for young babies, meaning that the logistical challenge of rolling out the vaccine becomes a lot more straightforward.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how do you do this and keep it affordable? You’re one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. You have got to look to your own bottom line, presumably. How do you do this, and how will you do this and make sure that people in poor countries can afford it?

ANDREW WITTY: Well, Jeff, first of all, we completely understand that we’re dealing with a vaccine which is going to be by far and away primarily used in sub-Saharan Africa, if it finally is approved.

We need to address that in the way the vaccine is priced. So we have made a very firm commitment that this vaccine will be priced at our cost of manufacture, our cost of goods, plus a 5 percent margin. And we will use that 5 percent margin to reinvestment in future improvements in malaria and other neglected tropical disease.

So this is — we think we can do an awful lot to make sure the price is not a reason to limit access to this particular vaccine. And we’re going to be working with our partners, our suppliers to do everything we can to continue to bring that price down.

Now, from a shareholder perspective — from a shareholder perspective, what they need to see is that, overall, the company makes a healthy return.

And I think what you’re seeing at GSK is, we’re taking a very balanced view to making sure that we make a good return across the whole business. But we recognize that in countries — in continents such as Africa, we have to do something different to get prices down. And that’s what we’re committed to do here.

JEFFREY BROWN: And again back to the larger context, as you said in the beginning, it is important to stress that this is just seen as one new thing to help on top of the other preventative measures already being stressed, right?

ANDREW WITTY: Absolutely.

This is a classic case of “and,” not “or.” Half the world’s population are exposed to malaria. There are 225 million cases a year and almost 800,000 deaths, mostly children in Africa, from this. And that’s — this is a very dangerous, prevalent infection which has the capacity to change. We need to throw everything we have at it.

The progress on bed nets has been phenomenal in the last five years. If we’re able to conclude successfully the vaccine development, we’re adding another very powerful weapon in our fight against malaria.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, very briefly, that — the earliest it would be on the market would be 2015, right?

ANDREW WITTY: I think, as we see today, we would expect 2015. That’s correct.


Andrew Witty of GlaxoSmithKline, thank you very much.

ANDREW WITTY: Thank you.