Since our founding in 2007, GiveWell has directed over $600 million to programs that aim to prevent malaria, a mosquito-borne disease that causes severe illness and death. Malaria is preventable and curable, yet it killed over 600,000 people in 2021—mostly young children in Africa.
Following the World Health Organization’s approval of the RTS,S/AS01 malaria vaccine (RTS,S) in late 2021, GiveWell directed $5 million to PATH to accelerate the rollout of the vaccine in certain areas of Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi. This grant aimed to enable these communities to gain access to the vaccine about a year earlier than they otherwise would, protecting hundreds of thousands of children from malaria.
Although we’re very excited about the potential of the RTS,S malaria vaccine to save lives, it isn’t a panacea. We still plan to support a range of malaria control interventions, including vaccines, nets, and antimalarial medicine.
In this post, we will:
- Explain how we found the opportunity to fund the malaria vaccine
- Discuss why we funded this grant
- Share our plan for malaria funding moving forward
Identifying a gap in vaccine access
In October 2021, we shared our initial thoughts on the approval of the RTS,S malaria vaccine by the World Health Organization (WHO). At that point, we weren’t sure whether the vaccine would be cost-effective and were not aware of any opportunities for private donors to support the expansion of vaccine access.
In the following months, our conversations with PATH, a large global health nonprofit that we’ve previously funded, revealed that there might be an opportunity to help deploy the vaccine more quickly in certain regions. PATH had been supporting the delivery of the vaccine in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi as part of the WHO-led pilot—the Malaria Vaccine Implementation Program (MVIP)–-since the pilot began in 2019. In order to generate evidence about the effectiveness of the vaccine, randomly selected areas in each country received the vaccine during the early years of the pilot, while “comparison areas” would receive the vaccine at a later date, if the vaccine was recommended by the WHO.
Once the vaccine had received approval from the WHO, the WHO and PATH believed there was an opportunity to build on the momentum and groundwork of the pilot to roll out the vaccine to the comparison areas as soon as possible. However, the expectation at the time was that expanding use to the comparison areas would need to wait for the standard process through which low-income countries apply for support to access vaccines from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. This process would have made it possible to introduce the vaccine at the end of 2023 at the earliest.
However, there was another path through which these vaccines could be provided more quickly. GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the vaccine manufacturer, had committed to donate up to 10 million vaccine doses as part of its support for the MVIP. This quantity of vaccine was set aside to allow completion of the pilot program, including vaccination in the comparison areas. However, additional support was needed to be able to utilize these vaccines in advance of Gavi financing, including (for example) funding to cover the costs of safe injection supplies and vaccine shipping and handling, as well as the technical assistance required to support vaccine implementation.
With funding from GiveWell, PATH believed it could provide the necessary technical assistance to the ministries of health in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi to support them in using the donated vaccines from GSK and expand vaccine access to the comparison areas at the end of 2022—providing an estimated additional year of protection for communities at risk of malaria. PATH planned to work with Gavi, UNICEF, and the WHO to ensure that the vaccine doses and other supplies could be provided to countries, as well as to assist with developing vaccine policies, training healthcare workers, raising public awareness of the program, and supporting the vaccine rollout.
Making and monitoring the grant
In order to assess the opportunity, we developed a preliminary cost-effectiveness analysis and spoke to stakeholders at the WHO, PATH, Gavi, and members of the Ministries of Health in Ghana and Kenya to learn more. We estimated that this grant would enable the vaccination of over 450,000 children who wouldn’t otherwise have been vaccinated, saving over 400 lives. We published more details on the case for the grant, as well as our uncertainties, here.
Since then, we’ve kept in touch with PATH to monitor the progress of the rollout. During 2022, the Ministries of Health in each country formally approved the use of the malaria vaccine in their countries and developed plans for the rollout, including training for healthcare workers and supply chain plans. As of March 2023, implementation in the comparison areas of the pilot had begun in all three countries.
In the coming year, we hope to learn more about how many children are being treated, as well as the future costs of the vaccine at scale, which we have significant remaining uncertainties about. Additionally, implementation in the comparison areas had begun in all three countries by March 2023, which is later than our initial forecast that implementation would begin by January 2023. These factors are key inputs in our cost-effectiveness analysis, so learning more will help us determine whether this opportunity was ultimately cost-effective, and improve our future funding decisions.
What’s next for GiveWell’s malaria funding
This grant aimed to provide initial access to the malaria vaccine in the comparison areas of the pilot program; as such, it’s a one-time opportunity that we don’t expect to fund again.
We will continue to monitor new developments with the malaria vaccines and may consider other grants related to RTS,S or other vaccines if we believe they are cost-effective. The WHO has published guidance recommending the use of RTS,S in certain contexts as part of a mix of interventions, which might include malaria nets and seasonal malaria chemoprevention (SMC)—interventions provided through two of the top charity programs we currently recommend. However, we still have more to learn about the cost-effectiveness and implications of delivering RTS,S alongside other interventions. To help generate more evidence in this area, we recently recommended a grant of approximately $1.6 million to support a trial of the effects of perennial malaria chemoprevention delivered alongside the RTS,S malaria vaccine, which will be compared to the effects of the vaccine on its own. We plan to publish more about this grant soon.
We’re also closely following the development of the R21 vaccine. Though R21 is still in late-stage trials, an earlier study showed up to 77% efficacy at protecting against malaria, higher than what’s been found for RTS,S. R21 is also reportedly less complex to manufacture than RTS,S. If so, it could help alleviate expected supply constraints as the demand for malaria vaccines exceeds available doses.
However, in the study linked above, the vaccine was given before the peak malaria season, in an area with seasonal (as opposed to year-round) malaria transmission. A preliminary analysis from unpublished results of a late-stage trial suggests that R21’s efficacy might be similar in areas with perennial malaria transmission, but more complete data would help us make a better-informed judgment about this. Additionally, unlike RTS,S, R21 has not yet been approved by the WHO.
GiveWell has grown to be a major supporter of malaria programs because we believe these interventions are among the best ways to save and improve lives in the lowest-income communities in the world. We’re excited to continue to invest in a range of malaria control interventions, including vaccines, nets, and SMC, as well as to investigate other potentially promising malaria programs. In particular, nets and SMC—the programs provided by our top charities Against Malaria Foundation and Malaria Consortium, respectively—are some of the most cost-effective ways we’re aware of to save and improve lives. These programs continue to offer a strong opportunity for donors to make a difference through their giving, and we remain excited to support their important work.