The news this week that the first-ever malaria vaccine has been endorsed by the World Health Organization is a welcome milestone in the battle against the pernicious disease that is curable but still kills more than half a million people every year.
Peter Chernin, the Chernin Group chief and former chief operating officer of News Corp., is among the industry insiders who have worked to find solutions to getting preventative care and treatment to areas where the mosquito-borne illness remains a major threat. Young children in sub-Saharan Africa are particularly vulnerable.
Chernin has co-chaired the nonprofit organization Malaria No More since its founding in 2006. The organization was born out of a conversation that Chernin and philanthropist Ray Chambers had that year during the Allen & Co. moguls conference in Sun Valley, Idaho.
The malaria problem is particularly maddening, Chernin said, because it is “100% treatable, preventable and curable” so long as people have access to rudimentary health care. Death rates have fallen by more than 50% over the past two decades.
“It’s not a science problem, it’s really a business problem,” Chernin told Variety of the challenge of ending deaths from malaria. “The problem is: How do you deliver known and effective goods and services needed to prevent this?”
Moreover, he said, the devastating effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic have only magnified the need for the Western world to invest in vaccine-delivery systems for the under-developed world.
The emergence of the malaria vaccine at the same time as the COVID inoculation could become a one-two punch that saves millions of lives. Chernin pointed to the importance of governments and nonprofits in this area working together to focus on getting shots in arms and the infrastructure in place to test for both diseases.
“We need to unite around these things,” Chernin said. “Getting COVID vaccines to Africa is a really important issue. Testing is a huge issue for (malaria) and so is completing that last-mile of health care delivery to people.”
Malaria No More was formed around the same time that the George W. Bush administration made a big increase in investment to curb malaria in the developing world. Launched in late 2006, the President’s Malaria Initiative, part of the office of USAID within the State Department, has been a bipartisan success story that has endured with funding through the Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations.
“At that point malaria was by far the No. 1 killer of children in the world,” Chernin said. “That’s just unconscionable. At that point we started to take a business-like approach to solving what were logistical problems.”
Malaria No More has aided efforts to distribute nets treated with insecticides to help prevent the mosquito bites. The organization also supports numerous on-the-ground programs in India, Kenya, Cameroon and other countries that provide prevention and treatment services.
The new vaccine has about a 50% efficacy rate, so it is not the end-all solution. However, it is a big step forward, Chernin said. Malaria death rates overall have dropped from about 1.1 million in 2006 to just over 400,000 annually in recent years.
Chernin points to the President’s Malaria Initiative as a quiet bipartisan success story at a time when unity is hard to find in the federal government.
“This is America at its best. This is the wealthiest country in the world trying to do something in a non-political way to eradicate a disease that has been one of the greatest scourges in history,” Chernin said.
“There is no one who calls a member of Congress to say ‘You’ve got to help me with my malaria problem.’ This is a good thing that this country has done for people elsewhere in the world. It is an unsung achievement of the American government and by extension the American people,” he said.