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Behind the new malaria vaccine endorsed by the World Health Organization

Novavax's (NVAX) Matrix-M, an adjuvant that helps provide broader protection in vaccines, is a key ingredient in the second-ever malaria vaccine recommended by the World Health Organization Monday.

The adjuvant, which is licensed to the Serum Institute of India (SII) for endemic countries, had been tested in a vaccine candidate from the University of Oxford before the pandemic — before Novavax produced its first commercial vaccine, the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Novavax ... is proud of the role ... our saponin-based Matrix-M adjuvant plays in the R21/Matrix-M malaria vaccine," said CEO John Jacobs in a statement.

The new vaccine will help alleviate demand in Africa in particular, with the India-based SII, the world's largest vaccine producer, supplying the new doses, according to SII CEO Adar Poonawalla.

"Sadly, the demand has been higher, a lot higher, than what was physically possible to be supplied by other manufacturers. So, the good news is that we have, now, another option for countries," Poonawalla told Yahoo Finance.

The relationship with the University of Oxford also predates the pandemic, Poonawalla said, noting that this was the original vaccine the duo were working on before they pivoted to the AstraZeneca/Oxford COVID-19 vaccine to address the pandemic.

SII said it has already begun to produce doses of the R21/Matrix-M vaccine, in anticipation of the rollout next year. It already has 20 million doses and is expecting to scale up to 200 million doses over the next two years.

A single dose will cost less than $5, Poonawalla said.

Portrait of a child in a clinic in Africa about to be vaccinated with the doctor beside him
Portrait of a child in a clinic in Africa about to be vaccinated with the doctor beside him. (Getty Images) (Media Lens King via Getty Images)

Manufacturing in Africa

The Serum Institute was among limited providers of COVID-19 doses on the African continent before it had to restrict exports, per the Indian government's request, to utilize doses domestically. That damaged the relationship between the sub-Saharan countries and the world's largest vaccine maker. It also highlighted an even bigger problem — there were few manufacturing options on the continent to product doses at scale.

That resulted in calls for equity in the Global South, from advocates and governments, which saw a number of commitments and plans from companies like Pfizer (PFE), Moderna (MRNA), and BioNTech (BNTX). Pfizer used an existing partner, the Biovac Institute, to produce doses in South Africa. Moderna committed to opening a facility in Kenya.

While none of those efforts were intended to address the immediate needs of the pandemic, they are contributing to a growing effort to get more doses produced on the continent. Some efforts have since waned.

BioNTech committed to a project in Rwanda, where it would ship smaller manufacturing containers, as well as discussed plans for a plant in South Africa. The latter idea has been scrapped, according to recent reports.

Meanwhile, the Mastercard Foundation has partnered with the Institut Pasteur de Dakar to invest in manufacturing in Senegal. This will help the African Union meet its goal of producing 60% of the continent's vaccine needs by 2040.

The Serum Institute, in the meantime, struck a partnership with Aspen Pharmacare — which had previously partnered with Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) for its COVID vaccine — to produce multiple vaccines. The agreement does not include the malaria vaccine, which Serum is producing in India.

"Our partnership with Aspen is very keen to develop that and to assure the countries in Africa, 'Look, we're starting to do things here.' And it's not just the Serum Institute, it's be other companies ... manufacturing and making the continent in some way a little more self-reliant," Poonawalla said.

Follow Anjalee on Twitter @AnjKhem.

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