Background: RTS,S/AS02 is a pre-erythrocytic malaria vaccine based on the circumsporozoite surface protein of Plasmodium falciparum fused to HBsAg, incorporating a new adjuvant (AS02). We did a randomised trial of the efficacy of RTS,S/AS02 against natural P. falciparum infection in semi-immune adult men in The Gambia.
Methods: 306 men aged 18-45 years were randomly assigned three doses of either RTS,S/AS02 or rabies vaccine (control). Volunteers were given sulfadoxine/pyrimethamine 2 weeks before dose 3, and kept under surveillance throughout the malaria transmission season. Blood smears were collected once a week and whenever a volunteer developed symptoms compatible with malaria. The primary endpoint was time to first infection with P. falciparum. Analysis was per protocol.
Findings: 250 men (131 in the RTS,S/AS02 group and 119 in the control group) received three doses of vaccine and were followed up for 15 weeks. RTS,S/AS02 was safe and well tolerated. P. falciparum infections occurred significantly earlier in the control group than the RTS,S/AS02 group (Wilcoxon's test p=0.018). Vaccine efficacy, adjusted for confounders, was 34% (95% CI 8.0-53, p=0.014). Protection seemed to wane: estimated efficacy during the first 9 weeks of follow-up was 71% (46-85), but decreased to 0% (-52 to 34) in the last 6 weeks. Vaccination induced strong antibody responses to circumsporozoite protein and strong T-cell responses. Protection was not limited to the NF54 parasite genotype from which the vaccine was derived. 158 men received a fourth dose the next year and were followed up for 9 weeks; during this time, vaccine efficacy was 47% (4-71, p=0.037).
Interpretation: RTS,S/AS02 is safe, immunogenic, and is the first pre-erythrocytic vaccine to show significant protection against natural P. falciparum infection.