Feasibility, safety, and impact of the RTS,S/AS01(E) malaria vaccine when implemented through national immunisation programmes: evaluation of cluster-randomised introduction of the vaccine in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi

Asante KP, Mathanga DP, Milligan P, Akech S, Oduro A, Mwapasa V, Moore KA, Kwambai TK, Hamel MJ, Gyan T, Westercamp N, Kapito-Tembo A, Njuguna P, Ansong D, Kariuki S, Mvalo T, Snell P, Schellenberg D, Welega P, Otieno L, Chimala A, Afari EA, Bejon P, Maleta K, Agbenyega T, Snow RW, Zulu M, Chinkhumba J, Samuels AM
Lancet. 2024;403

Permenent descriptor

BACKGROUND: The RTS,S/AS01(E) malaria vaccine (RTS,S) was introduced by national immunisation programmes in Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi in 2019 in large-scale pilot schemes. We aimed to address questions about feasibility and impact, and to assess safety signals that had been observed in the phase 3 trial that included an excess of meningitis and cerebral malaria cases in RTS,S recipients, and the possibility of an excess of deaths among girls who received RTS,S than in controls, to inform decisions about wider use. METHODS: In this prospective evaluation, 158 geographical clusters (66 districts in Ghana; 46 sub-counties in Kenya; and 46 groups of immunisation clinic catchment areas in Malawi) were randomly assigned to early or delayed introduction of RTS,S, with three doses to be administered between the ages of 5 months and 9 months and a fourth dose at the age of approximately 2 years. Primary outcomes of the evaluation, planned over 4 years, were mortality from all causes except injury (impact), hospital admission with severe malaria (impact), hospital admission with meningitis or cerebral malaria (safety), deaths in girls compared with boys (safety), and vaccination coverage (feasibility). Mortality was monitored in children aged 1-59 months throughout the pilot areas. Surveillance for meningitis and severe malaria was established in eight sentinel hospitals in Ghana, six in Kenya, and four in Malawi. Vaccine uptake was measured in surveys of children aged 12-23 months about 18 months after vaccine introduction. We estimated that sufficient data would have accrued after 24 months to evaluate each of the safety signals and the impact on severe malaria in a pooled analysis of the data from the three countries. We estimated incidence rate ratios (IRRs) by comparing the ratio of the number of events in children age-eligible to have received at least one dose of the vaccine (for safety outcomes), or age-eligible to have received three doses (for impact outcomes), to that in non-eligible age groups in implementation areas with the equivalent ratio in comparison areas. To establish whether there was evidence of a difference between girls and boys in the vaccine's impact on mortality, the female-to-male mortality ratio in age groups eligible to receive the vaccine (relative to the ratio in non-eligible children) was compared between implementation and comparison areas. Preliminary findings contributed to WHO's recommendation in 2021 for widespread use of RTS,S in areas of moderate-to-high malaria transmission. FINDINGS: By April 30, 2021, 652 673 children had received at least one dose of RTS,S and 494 745 children had received three doses. Coverage of the first dose was 76% in Ghana, 79% in Kenya, and 73% in Malawi, and coverage of the third dose was 66% in Ghana, 62% in Kenya, and 62% in Malawi. 26 285 children aged 1-59 months were admitted to sentinel hospitals and 13 198 deaths were reported through mortality surveillance. Among children eligible to have received at least one dose of RTS,S, there was no evidence of an excess of meningitis or cerebral malaria cases in implementation areas compared with comparison areas (hospital admission with meningitis: IRR 0·63 [95% CI 0·22-1·79]; hospital admission with cerebral malaria: IRR 1·03 [95% CI 0·61-1·74]). The impact of RTS,S introduction on mortality was similar for girls and boys (relative mortality ratio 1·03 [95% CI 0·88-1·21]). Among children eligible for three vaccine doses, RTS,S introduction was associated with a 32% reduction (95% CI 5-51%) in hospital admission with severe malaria, and a 9% reduction (95% CI 0-18%) in all-cause mortality (excluding injury). INTERPRETATION: In the first 2 years of implementation of RTS,S, the three primary doses were effectively deployed through national immunisation programmes. There was no evidence of the safety signals that had been observed in the phase 3 trial, and introduction of the vaccine was associated with substantial reductions in hospital admission with severe malaria. Evaluation continues to assess the impact of four doses of RTS,S. FUNDING: Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria; and Unitaid.