In 2007, philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates stunned many scientists when, at a meeting in Seattle, Washington, they called for the worldwide eradication of malaria. Many felt malaria was so
entrenched—there were almost 250 million cases annually—and so difficult to fight that any talk of eradication was premature. But it’s hard to ignore two of the world’s most generous funders, and both the World Health Organization (WHO) and researchers embraced the idea. Soon, a flurry of working groups, scientific papers, and public health strategies were laying the groundwork.
But the consensus is dissolving. Last week, WHO dropped a minor bombshell of its own when it released the summary of a report that says malaria eradication isn’t feasible in the foreseeable future. And it argues that setting any deadline will undermine disease control efforts, as it did when WHO set a similar goal 64 years ago. “We must not set the world up for another failed malaria eradication effort that could derail attempts to achieve our vision for decades,” says the report from WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group on Malaria Eradication (SAGme).
“It’s a watershed moment,” says Willem Takken, a retired medical entomologist from Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands. “Basically WHO now admits we won’t get rid of malaria anytime soon.”
A second high-caliber group, however, disagrees. On 9 September, the Lancet Commission on Malaria Eradication, a group of 26 academics from around the globe, will publish a study recommending that the world set a 2050 target for eradication, sources tell Science. The commission will also offer a timeline and concrete steps for reaching the goal. A deadline will help raise money and keep the field energized, says Arjen Dondorp, head of the Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit in Bangkok and a member of the Lancet group: “It’s mainly about keeping up the spirit.”
The Lancet commission plans a high-profile announcement at WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. That prompted a preemptive strike by SAGme. It published its summary and held a press conference last Thursday, even though its full report is months away, “partly because of the noise that may be generated around” the Lancet report, says Pedro Alonso, director of WHO’s Global Malaria Programme. “It is making sure that the community doesn’t go down a single line of thinking.”
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