Follow the quest to create a lifesaving malaria vaccine.

New one-hour film — featuring unprecedented access to the scientists behind the R21 vaccine – documents the vaccine’s dramatic journey to W.H.O. approval

Premieres Wednesday, November 15, 2023 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS

Also available for streaming at and on the PBS App | @novapbs

BOSTON, MA; November 10, 2023—The PBS science series NOVA today announced that the new one-hour film, THE BATTLE TO BEAT MALARIA, produced by Wingspan Productions and HHMI Tangled Bank Studios in association with NOVA/GBH, will premiere Wednesday, November 15 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS. The film, which will also be available for streaming at and on the PBS App, brings viewers an exclusive behind-the-scenes look at the University of Oxford research team that spearheaded the new R21 vaccine — being hailed as a major breakthrough in the fight against malaria — and its long path from development to approval by the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) in October 2023. THE BATTLE TO BEAT MALARIA tells the dramatic inside story of a new vaccine to fight against one of humanity’s oldest and most devastating plagues. It also offers an intimate look at the scientists, doctors, health care workers, and trial participants battling this deadly disease.

At the dawn of the 20th century, a physician of tropical medicine remarked that the future of humanity would be decided by one battle: man versus mosquito. And in all of medical science, there has been no longer or tougher battle than the fight against mosquito-borne malaria. It is one of the world’s deadliest diseases. More than 200 million people fall ill and 600,000 people die of malaria every year — most are children under five years old. But now, researchers in the United Kingdom, Tanzania, India, and elsewhere are on the brink of a breakthrough: a safe, highly effective, low-cost vaccine that could revolutionize the fight against malaria.

Effective vaccines against malaria have been notoriously hard to design. The malaria parasite’s complex, multi-stage life cycle means that it is much harder to defeat than viruses like smallpox, polio, and even COVID-19. Today malaria is considered a tropical disease, but until very recently it affected people all over the world, shaping human history — and our very genomes. Thanks to the insecticide DDT and the increased availability of malaria tests and treatments, the U.S. was declared malaria free in 1951; the disease was essentially eliminated throughout the Western world around that same time. After that, funding for research was drastically cut, and malaria was all but forgotten in most wealthy nations.

Yet outside these countries it remains an ever-present challenge. THE BATTLE TO BEAT MALARIA takes viewers to Tanzania, where nine out of ten people live in the country’s malaria zone. And it is the youngest children, far less able to fight off infection, who are most at risk. Across the country — and much of the African continent — malaria costs lives and affects livelihoods, undermining the potential of entire generations.

In the film, viewers are introduced to Dr. Ally Olotu, of the Ifakara Health Institute, a veteran malaria researcher who is working on the country’s medical frontline. Dr. Olotu is thrilled to be part of an international team working on a new malaria vaccine.Other key members of the team are based at the University Of Oxford, where they found earlier success with the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. Led by Sir Adrian Hill, Director of the University’s Jenner Institute and lead immunologist Katie Ewer, the team has been working for the last 13 years on a malaria vaccine called R21-Matrix M.

R21’s goal is to activate the body’s immune defenses so they are ready to attack the parasite at its most vulnerable moment: just after it enters our blood. When an infected female mosquito bites a person and injects immature parasites into their bloodstream, there’s a very brief window of time before the parasites infect the liver, launching the second, potentially deadly stage of infection. During this narrow window, most individuals’ immune responses are not prepared to defeat the parasite. But the parasite does have an Achilles’ heel. In order to invade the liver, it relies on a coating called the circumsporozoite protein (CSP). The R21 vaccine is built from CSP protein, inducing the body to produce an army of antibodies designed to neutralize the parasite. R21’s predecessor — a pioneering vaccine called RTS,S — uses the same strategy. RTS,S was approved for use in 2021 — the very first malaria vaccine to gain W.H.O. approval. But so far supply has been limited, and it is relatively expensive to produce.

THE BATTLE TO BEAT MALARIA explores the years of painstaking lab work that eventually led to a vaccine design yielding promising antibody responses and early trials reporting remarkable protection against malaria; first in mice and later in healthy adults. It documents a clinical trial in very young Tanzanian children from the perspective of their families — and the scientists who are racing to protect them, including trial lead Dr. Mehreen Datoo. Cameras roll, capturing moments of high emotion through the final trial phases. The largest of these, a $20 million effort to vaccinate nearly 5,000 children, yielded impressive results:  R21 was between 68% and 75% effective in preventing clinical malaria cases, upholding earlier evidence that it is the first malaria vaccine to meet W.H.O. targets for the year 2030.

The film also takes viewers to the Serum Institute of India, the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world and the project’s key trials and production partner. In a high-stakes bet, the Institute, led by CEO Adar Poonawalla and its chief scientist Dr. Umesh Shaligram, commits to producing tens of millions of doses of the new, low-cost vaccine, even before W.H.O. approval. Meanwhile, researchers are racing to provide W.H.O. with the data that could secure that approval.

Finally, the news that the team has been awaiting finally arrives: the W.H.O. has approved R21 for use in children, triggering the release of critical donor funds and opening the door to its intended rollout in 2024. The filmmakers capture the emotional reactions of the team, including Hill, Ewer, and Olotu. They know that this vaccine could offer a lifeline for millions.

“This is an important story about a game-changing scientific breakthrough, and we are thrilled to be working with director Catherine Gale and Wingspan Productions to bring it to life,” said Executive Producer and Head of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios Jared Lipworth. “Gale’s deep understanding of the science and intimate storytelling style provides a captivating window into the way vaccine development works. Given our shared commitment to science communications and education, we’re also pleased to again be partnering with NOVA to bring the film to national audiences.”

THE BATTLE TO BEAT MALARIA premieres Wednesday, November 15 at 9pm ET/8C on PBS and will be available for streaming at and on the PBS App, available on iOS, Android, Roku streaming devices, Apple TV, Android TV, Amazon Fire TV, Samsung Smart TV, Chromecast and VIZIO. PBS station members can view many series, documentaries and specials via PBS Passport. For more information about PBS Passport, visit the PBS Passport FAQ website.

THE BATTLE TO BEAT MALARIA is produced by UK-based independent production company WINGSPAN PRODUCTIONS and HHMI TANGLED BANK STUDIOS in association with NOVA/GBH. It is produced and directed by Catherine Gale (Race for the Vaccine). Executive Producer for Wingspan Productions is Archie Baron (Race for the Vaccine). Executive Producers for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios are Jared Lipworth and Sean B. Carroll. Executive Producers for NOVA are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt.

Funding for THE BATTLE TO BEAT MALARIA is provided by Viking Cruises, the NOVA Science Trust, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers.

“THE BATTLE TO BEAT MALARIA is a timely unraveling of the science behind an extraordinary quest,” says NOVA Co-Executive Producer Julia Cort, “but it’s also a deeply moving story about the scientists, researchers, and clinicians who have dedicated so many years towards improving and saving human lives.”


“This is the raw and emotional inside story of a decisive moment in science’s struggle to save millions of lives and turn the tide against one of the biggest killers of humanity,” said Archie Baron, Executive Producer for Wingspan Productions. “This film introduces viewers to the scientists and the human story in a way that major breakthroughs like this so profoundly deserve, without shying away from the science at the heart of the matter.”


About NOVA

NOVA is the most popular primetime science series on American television, demystifying the scientific and technological concepts that shape and define our lives, our planet, and our universe. The PBS series is also one of the most widely distributed science programs around the world, and is a multimedia, multiplatform brand reaching more than 55 million Americans every year on TV and online. NOVA’s important and inspiring stories of human ingenuity, exploration, and the quest for knowledge are regularly recognized with the industry’s most prestigious awards. As part of its mission to make the scientific enterprise accessible to all, NOVA is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion in all its work, from the production process to the range of stories we tell and the voices we amplify. In addition, science educators across the country rely on NOVA for resources used in the classroom as well as in museums, libraries, and after-school programs. NOVA is a production of GBH; more information can be found at, or by following NOVA on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.


About PBS

PBS, with more than 330 member stations, offers all Americans the opportunity to explore new ideas and new worlds through television and digital content. Each month, PBS reaches over 120 million people through television and 26 million people online, inviting them to experience the worlds of science, history, nature, and public affairs; to hear diverse viewpoints; and to take front row seats to world-class drama and performances. PBS’s broad array of programs has been consistently honored by the industry’s most coveted award competitions. Teachers of children from pre-K through 12th grade turn to PBS for digital content and services that help bring classroom lessons to life. Decades of research confirms that PBS’s premier children’s media service, PBS KIDS, helps children build critical literacy, math, and social-emotional skills, enabling them to find success in school and life. Delivered through member stations, PBS KIDS offers high-quality educational content on TV — including a 24/7 channel — online at, via an array of mobile apps, and in communities across America. More information about PBS is available at, one of the leading dot-org websites on the internet, or by following PBS on Twitter, Facebook or through our apps for mobile and connected devices. Specific program information and updates for press are available at or by following  PBS Communications on Twitter.


About GBH

GBH is the leading multiplatform creator for public media in America. As the largest producer of content for PBS and partner to NPR and PRX, GBH delivers compelling experiences, stories and information to audiences wherever they are. GBH produces digital and broadcast programming that engages, illuminates and inspires, through drama and science, history, arts, culture and journalism. It is the creator of such signature programs as MASTERPIECE, ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, FRONTLINE, NOVA, AMERICAN EXPERIENCE, Arthur and Molly of Denali, as well as WORLD Channel and a catalog of streaming series, podcasts and on-demand video. With studios and a newsroom headquartered in Boston, GBH reaches across New England with GBH 89.7, Boston’s Local NPR®; CRB Classical 99.5; and CAI, the Cape and Islands NPR® station. Dedicated to making media accessible to and inclusive of our diverse culture, GBH is a pioneer in delivering media to those who are deaf, hard of hearing, blind and visually impaired. GBH creates curriculum-based digital content for educators nationwide with PBS LearningMedia and has been recognized with hundreds of the nation’s premier broadcast, digital and journalism awards. Find more information at


About HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

HHMI Tangled Bank Studios is a mission-driven production company that seeks to shine a light on some of the most significant scientific challenges and breakthroughs of our time. Recent films include Oscar-nominated All That Breathes, the only film to win best documentary at both the Sundance and Cannes film festivals; Emmy Award-winners The Serengeti Rules and The Farthest – Voyager In Space; Emmy-nominated Nature’s Fear Factor; and Peabody Award winner Inventing Tomorrow. To extend the reach and impact of each film, the studio undertakes educational and public outreach efforts in partnership with mission-focused organizations. For more information, please visit WWW.TANGLEDBANKSTUDIOS.ORG.


About Wingspan Productions

WINGSPAN PRODUCTIONS is a multi-award winning independent production company specializing in factual content based in London, UK. Founded by Archie Baron in 2008, Wingspan has made documentaries and series across the factual genres to all the major UK broadcasters, and many US and international partners. Its projects tend to be innovative and ambitious as well as highly entertaining and have been recognised with Rose D’Or, Prix Italia, Grierson, RTS, Broadcast, AFO, Impact Docs and Sandford St Martin Awards as well as being three times BAFTA nominated. Recent titles range from the international feature documentary Vaccine: The Inside Story (known as Race for the Vaccine in the USA) to environmental ice skating Alaskan spectacular Dancing on Thin Ice with Torvill & Dean; arts portrait Quentin Blake: The Drawing of My Life, urgent history in Ian Hislop’s Fake News; the mind-expanding six volume series The Joy of… on every aspect of maths, the madcap AI-Musical Theatre experiment Computer Says Show and the unique and historic joyous celebration of Our Gay Wedding: The Musical.

November 15, 2023 6:00pm
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