BBC Factual has announced Horizon: The Battle to Beat Malaria, a 1×60’ film for BBC Two and iPlayer, made by Wingspan Productions, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, and ARTE France, in association with BBC and NOVA/GBH.

Of all the diseases that plague humankind, malaria has put up one of the longest, toughest fights. It sickens more than 200 million people – and kills more than 600,000 – every year, making it one of the world’s deadliest diseases. The vast majority of victims are children under 5 years old.

Just one malaria vaccine has previously been approved for use – it is expensive and currently has extremely limited supply. But we are now at an exciting turning point.

Thanks to an extraordinary group of vaccine scientists – lead by a groundbreaking team at Oxford University who for over ten years have battled malaria whilst also playing a vital role in the development of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine – there is new hope on the horizon.

Filmed with privileged access over several years to key scientists on four continents, this is the inside story of the development of a new malaria vaccine that could change the very nature of the fight. The vaccine, dubbed R21/Matrix-M™ aims to be the first to meet the World Health Organization’s target of 75% efficacy at preventing the disease.

Horizon: The Battle to Beat Malaria documents a dramatic unfolding of that story as it happens. With expert insight from project lead Professor Sir Adrian Hill and his team, the film explores the years of trial and error and painstaking lab work before the critical Phase 3 clinical trials in children across Africa.

The cameras are rolling for moments of high emotion, including when the initial Phase 3 trial results land—revealing to lead immunologist Professor Katie Ewer the data that will determine the vaccine’s future—and its potential over time to save the lives of millions of children.

The film also takes viewers behind the walls of the Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer led by billionaire CEO Adar Poonawalla. SII comes on board as the project’s key biotechnology partner for clinical trials and manufacturing, betting on the vaccine to save millions of lives, and creating up to 100 million low-cost doses of the vaccine per year.

Other key contributors share the emotional highs and lows of their journeys, including clinical lead Dr Mehreen Datoo, an NHS doctor who is herself a survivor of severe malaria, clinician and Tanzanian trial chief Dr Ally Olotu, and SII’s chief scientist, Dr Umesh Shaligram.

Tom Coveney, Head of Commissioning, Science, says: “This is a once in a generation breakthrough. Millions of lives could be saved, thanks to the work of pioneering British scientists and their colleagues around the globe. We’re delighted to bring this world-shaping story to our UK audience.”

Archie Baron, Executive Producer for Wingspan Productions, commented: “Stories don’t get any bigger than this. So it was the documentary privilege and responsibility of a lifetime for us to be with the amazing scientists in Oxford and their international colleagues chronicling the key moments of the development of a vaccine with the potential to save literally millions of lives. It is a huge achievement for British and global science.”

Head of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Jared Lipworth notes, “Our mission is to show, through visually and emotionally powerful stories, how scientific discoveries get made and how science can improve our lives. This film does that in spades, and we are honoured to play a part in bring it to the world.”

Horizon: The Battle to Beat Malaria, a 1×60’ for BBC Two and iPlayer, is produced by Wingspan Productions, HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, and ARTE France, in association with BBC and NOVA/GBH.

The UK version of the documentary was commissioned for the BBC by Jack Bootle, Head of Commissioning, Specialist Factual. It is produced and directed by Catherine Gale (Horizon Special: The Vaccine). The narrator is Lucian Msamati (Game of Thrones). The Executive Producer for Wingspan is Archie Baron. The Executive Producers for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios are Jared Lipworth and Sean B. Carroll. The Executive Producers for ARTE France are Hélène Ganichaud and Axel Villard-Faure. The Commissioning Editor for the BBC is Tom Coveney, Head of Commissioning, Science. The Executive Producers for PBS/NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt.

* The R21/Matrix-M vaccine roll out is due to begin in July 2024. According to the World Health Organization, at least 30 countries in Africa plan to introduce malaria vaccines into their childhood immunization programmes.


Pippa Considine

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