The first malaria vaccine to meet a World Health Organization-specified goal of more than 75 percent efficacy has been developed by scientists at the University of Oxford, a potentially significant step toward defeating the disease.

Finding more effective inoculations against the mosquito-borne disease has been a critical goal in fighting an infection that kills about 400,000 people a year, largely in sub-Saharan Africa, with most being children under the age of five.

“Even before COVID-19, progress in the global fight against malaria had stalled,” said Simon Bland, chief executive officer of the Global Institute for Disease Elimination. “This new vaccine could be a game-changer toward the elimination of malaria, a disease that has killed more people than any other since the beginning of humankind.”

The shot uses Matrix-M adjuvant technology, also used in Novavax’s COVID-19 vaccine to make that immunization more powerful, according to a study published in The Lancet journal. It was trialed in 450 children ages 5 to 17 months in Burkina Faso and “was well-tolerated,” the team at the university’s Jenner Institute said.

The candidate, called R21, is 77 percent effective against malaria, according to the study, which hasn’t been peer-reviewed. The Serum Institute of India, which is also manufacturing the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot against COVID-19, has agreed to make the malaria vaccine once approved.

“An effective and safe malaria vaccine would be a hugely significant extra weapon in the armory needed to defeat malaria,” Gareth Jenkins, from Malaria No More U.K., said in a statement. “Countries freed from the malaria burden will be much better equipped to fight off new disease threats when they inevitably emerge in the future.”

The vaccine will next start broad clinical trials in 4,800 children across four African countries.

— Bloomberg News