On the eve of World Malaria Day 2021, there are concerns that years of progress towards the elimination of malaria could be lost because of the wider impacts of COVID-19 and global resources being devoted to it.
However, this is tempered by optimism that malaria research and public health efforts stand to benefit in the longer term from lessons of the COVID-19 response.
Each year, more than 400,000 people globally die of malaria from over 200 million new infections, with an estimated two-thirds of deaths among children aged under five.
Since the turn of the century, the burden of malaria, which is treatable and preventable, has reduced significantly. But progress has largely stalled since 2015, and there is a risk of the burden of malaria increasing since the COVID-19 pandemic.
“COVID-19 is diverting scarce health resources and public health services from malaria, which is reducing the capacity to test, diagnose and treat malaria, and run malaria prevention programs,” Professor James Beeson, Head of Burnet’s Malaria Immunity and Vaccines Laboratory, said.
“It’s also disrupting supply chains including diagnostics, drugs and other resources urgently needed for malaria control and prevention, and this is a big concern.
“The impact of COVID is terrible in itself, but as a consequence, we’re now also likely to see an increase in the burden of malaria.”
Professor Beeson said one potential positive for malaria to flow from the COVID-19 pandemic, however, is that COVID-19 has highlighted vaccines as a cornerstone of combating infectious diseases.
The unprecedented global response from the research community, government, industry partners and policy makers to develop effective vaccines could serve as a model to accelerate the development and rollout of an effective malaria vaccine.
“We don’t have a highly protective vaccine for malaria, but this climate gives us an opportunity to rethink and reinvigorate malaria vaccine efforts globally through a multisectoral approach,” Professor Beeson said.
“Another benefit to flow from the pandemic is learning from the new technologies employed to develop COVID-19 vaccines.
“Malaria is a much more complex organism than a coronavirus, but we can certainly look to these new technologies and consider how they could be applied to accelerate the development of malaria vaccines.”
Professor Beeson said the COVID-19 pandemic had also highlighted the importance of sustained investment in supporting health services and public health infrastructure in malaria endemic countries, as well as high quality data and surveillance.
“This is a high priority area for research, to develop better tools that can detect the hidden reservoir of malaria infections so we can target our interventions more effectively to stamp out transmission,” he said.
“It’s important that our vision for malaria elimination remains strong, that we stay on track and find ways to make progress during these challenging times.”
World Malaria Day is celebrated on April 25 each year to highlight the need for continued investment and sustained political commitment for malaria prevention and control.