The Drive to Eradicate Malaria
By Yadira Ferrer
The work the Colombian Immunology Institute has been carrying out for nearly two decades to achieve a malaria vaccine that is 100-percent effective could produce definitive results within the next two years.
BOGOTA, (Tierramérica).- ''We are working hard to provide humanity in one or two years with the vaccine and we have made great advances,'' said Colombian scientist Manuel Elkin Patarroyo, inventor of a vaccine for malaria, a disease that causes three million deaths annually and affects an additional 300 million people.
The Colombian Immunology Institute has made progress beyond the 30 to 50 percent effectiveness of the Spf 66 vaccine achieved in 1999, and the results will be released soon, announced Patarroyo, who heads a team of 140 experts, including chemists, physicists, biologists, mathematicians, microbiologists and doctors.
At age 53, Patarroyo is one of Latin America's most noted scientists.
As a boy, his heroes were Luis Pasteur and Robert Koch, instead of Superman, and he dreamed of saving people from disease. He initially began working on developing a synthetic vaccine for tuberculosis, but in 1983, at the suggestion of two Swedish colleagues who were researching malaria, he switched fields.
And he did so with a group of 18 people in a restored mansion from Colombia's Republican era, located on the grounds of the San Juan de Dios Hospital in central Bogota. Patarroyo continues to work there today.
In January 1986, he concluded the first phase with the discovery of a vaccine, surpassing research teams in industrialized countries that had begun work on the malaria problem a decade earlier.
The success of Patarroyo and his team lies in the fact that, while traditional vaccines are effective for fighting various viruses that attack humans, they have not been very effective at fighting bacteria or parasites - like the Plasmodium, which causes malaria - something the Spf 66 achieves, commented immunologist Sócrates Herrera.
The synthetic vaccine against malaria, which Patarroyo patented and which will be manufactured in Colombia by a company created with support from the Spanish government, will be handed over to the World Health Organization (WHO) for distribution to all countries.
The donation of the Spf 66 patent rights to the WHO, a United Nations agency, is widely seen as a reflection of Patarroyo's solidarity with all humanity.
WHO control over Spf 66 will allow access to the vaccine for people or countries with limited resources, and the Colombian Immunology Institute is studying the possibility that, by producing the vaccine at low costs, it could be given away.
In addition to achieving 100-percent effectiveness of Spf 66, Patarroyo and his team propose the immediate goal of creating a rational, logical and universal method for developing vaccines against any disease, including AIDS and leprosy.
In his work at the helm of Colombia's most prestigious research center, Patarroyo considers himself fortunate to have the backing of his government.
But the Institute has not escaped the economic problems that affect the country, reflected in the center's 11-percent reduction in staff over the last year.
Furthermore, the scientific community here was alarmed by the announcement on Jan 10 of an embargo against the San Juan de Dios Hospital, on which the Institute depends, by the BBV-Banco Ganadero (of Spain's Bilbao Vizcaya banking group) due to debts reaching 29 million dollars.
The embargo could affect the funding of the Institute and therefore its research efforts in progress, though a quick resolution to the problem is expected.
The Colombian Immunology Institute was created in 1972 and its initial activities focused on research on autoimmune diseases like tuberculosis, which eventually gave rise to developing a method to create synthetic vaccines.
* Yadira Ferrer is an IPS correspondent