Few challenges to humanity require constant innovation and sustained research like the fight against infectious diseases. Among those, malaria has proven to be particularly persistent, though much progress has been made. In 2000, more than 1.2 million people were dying of malaria each year. Today, that number has significantly decreased by around 60%. Since then, 12 countries have been declared malaria-free by the World Health Organization, with more on the way. This progress is due, in large part, to a global effort by researchers and community-based organizations to improve prevention and treatment methods, as well as work by governments and the private sector to help deploy resources and increase awareness.

ExxonMobil’s Malaria Initiative launched in 2000, the same year African leaders pledged to halve the continent’s malaria mortality by 2010. Since then, the company’s investments have benefitted more than 125 million people across the world.

Hear directly from three malaria frontline researchers, whose work ExxonMobil has supported, on what they, and the broader research community, have learned in fighting this disease and how this insight can inform the world’s response to other diseases, like COVID-19. Their perspectives are a reflection on the progress made in combating malaria over the last 20 years and the important work that lies ahead.

TWO DECADES OF PROGRESS

When it comes to malaria, a lot has changed over the last 20 years. Here’s what three experts have learned about combating the disease.

Dr. Birkett leads the Malaria Vaccine Initiative at PATH, a nonprofit focused on improving global public health. The initiative, funded in part by ExxonMobil, has collaborated in the development of the first malaria vaccine shown to provide partial protection against malaria in young children, a group disproportionally affected by the disease.

Double quoteHaving worked on vaccines for the best part of 20 to 25 years, I would have to say in terms of a single tool, I'm very excited about the possibility of the first malaria vaccine which completed phase three trials, and is currently ongoing a pilot implementation in three Sub-Saharan African countries. But I would think probably no single individual breakthrough, I would say, has really been pivotal in our fight against malaria. We've been able to reduce mortality from malaria from over 1 million deaths per year to less than 500,000 over the last 20 years, and that's been achieved by not a single tool or a single breakthrough, but really the layered introduction of a range of different interventions. So in terms of the specific tools that have had the most impact in combating malaria over the last 20 years, we'd have to look at insecticide treated bed nets as really the bedrock intervention that's been associated with the most impact, but that has also been enabled by the use of other tools like other vector control and management by effective diagnostics to enable us to rapidly diagnose those who were infected with malaria, and then highly effective treatments, including new drugs to try and stay on top of the rapidly evolving resistance.

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Drug resistance is a major obstacle in the fight against malaria. Dr. Wirth has taken on the quest of studying this challenge and preparing her students – the next-generation – for what lies ahead.

Double quoteOne of the main focuses of my group for many years has been understanding how the parasite becomes resistant to drugs. You may be familiar with resistance to tuberculosis or antibiotic resistance for common hospital infections in the West. It's a similar phenomenon. Organisms evolve resistance as a way to escape treatment with effective drugs. And it is only by a continued effort of the research, and then subsequently, the drug development community, that one is able to stay ahead of the game, always having a molecule ready to treat the resistant parasites. As we go forward, it's clear that individuals from disease endemic countries will be the ones that end the fight, and training them now and giving them the capacity to do that is a very important mission.

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Dr. Rabinovich knows the value of partnerships. She has decades of experience in global health spanning the research, public health and philanthropic sectors, working alongside many organizations and governments around the world.

Double quoteThe concept of partnership has been really important in malaria because various groups hold a specific part of either the problem or the solution in their hand, and it's not effective until you bring the various components together. What COVID has taught us for malaria, and has taught us as a community, is that I, sitting in Pennsylvania, live in a highly endemic country. And that sense of being at risk and watching your country being number one on the head count of cases and deaths per day is what African countries have been faced with for years. We have the resources to have turned that into urgency. And as a result of urgency, in nine months, we have a vaccine. Now, I don't think any amount of money would give you a malaria vaccine in nine months. And it can't just be private sector or public sector. It needs to be a partnership.

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