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Pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) has confirmed plans to seek regulatory approval for a malaria vaccine in 2014, boosting hopes that the drug could be widely available within a couple of years.
A large-scale trial of GSK's malaria vaccine – called RTS,S – was successful at protecting young children against the disease up to 18 months after immunization, the drug maker said.
The vaccination was found to halve malaria cases in small children, and reduce by a quarter malaria cases in babies. Its effectiveness was, however, shown to decline over time.
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Based on the results of the tests, which involved 15,000 children across seven African countries, GSK plans to submit a regulatory application to the European Medicines Agency next year. If it is granted what is known as a "positive scientific opinion", a policy recommendation from the World Health Organization (WHO) for the vaccine is possible as early as 2015.
There are around 219 million cases of malaria each year, causing 666,000 deaths, according to the WHO. Africa is the continent hardest hit by the disease, with 90 percent of the malaria deaths occurring there.
Halidou Tinto, chair of the Clinical Trials Partnership Committee which is overseeing the trial, said the vaccine had the potential to have a significant public health impact.
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"Preventing substantial numbers of malaria cases in a community would mean fewer hospital beds filled with sick children," he said. "Families would lose less time and money caring for these children and have more time for work or other activities. And of course the children themselves would reap the benefits of better health."
While Andrew Witty, CEO of GSK, said he was "very encouraged" by the test results.
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"While we have seen some decline in vaccine efficacy over time, the sheer number of children affected by malaria means that the number of cases of the disease the vaccine can help prevent is impressive," he said.
The data collected supported the company's decision to submit a regulatory application for the vaccine candidate, he said, adding: "If successful, (it) would bring us a step closer to having an additional tool to fight this deadly disease."
Results of further testing – looking at the vaccine's effectiveness after 32 months and the impact of a "booster" dose – are due in 2014.
—By CNBC's Katrina Bishop. Follow her on Twitter @KatrinaBishop