The Onchocerciasis Vaccine for Africa (TOVA) - A global initiative to advance river blindness vaccine

The University of Edinburgh has joined with 14 other international organisations to launch a new global initiative to advance the development of a vaccine for river blindness, or Onchocerciasis. 

Researchers from institutions including the University of Glasgow, Imperial College London, University of Liverpool and the Sabin Vaccine Institute Product Development Partnership are involved in this major new project.

Onchocerciasis, or river blindness, is a parasitic disease caused by a nematode worm and transmitted through the bite of blackflies.  An estimated 17 million people are infected with more than 99% of these cases spread through 31 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.  As the name suggests, infections can lead to blindness, but over 70% of infected individuals will suffer from an eruptive skin disease which can be severe and debilitating, with a particularly serious negative impact on the lives of women.  The images on the right show the Onchocerciasis nodules containing adult worms on head of 5 yr old Cameroon child, and devasting lower-limb skin disease.

The new partnership, called The Onchocerciasis Vaccine for Africa Initiative (TOVA), builds on over 30 years of research by partner laboratories in Africa, Europe and the United States. This involved development of preclinical (laboratory animal) models as well as detailed immunological investigations of human infections, which ultimately led to the identification of several protective antigens as lead vaccine candidates.

The purpose of TOVA is to take one vaccine candidate to a phase one safety trial by 2017 and phase two efficacy trials by 2020.

This would be the world’s first vaccine for this long-neglected disease and will help achieve WHO goal of elimination of onchocerciasis from the African continent. Vaccination would complement current use of a drug called ivermectin, particularly in regions where mass drug administration cannot be implemented for safety reasons, and could make a major contribution to eliminating one of the most serious public health risks for African communities.

The longer-term plan is to administer the Onchocerciasis vaccine to children as part of national immunization programmes. Dr. Alex Debrah, Dean of the Faculty of Allied Health Sciences of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana said,

A vaccine could prevent millions of children in Africa from becoming blind”.


  • TOVA African Partners:
    • University of Buea, Cameroon
    • Research Foundation in Tropical Disease and Environment, Cameroon
    • Cameroon Academy of Sciences
    • Kwame Nkrumah University, Ghana.
  • TOVA European partners:
    • University of Edinburgh, UK
    • University of Liverpool, UK
    • University of Glasgow, UK
    • Imperial College, London, UK.
    • Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, France;
    • University Hospital of Bonn, Germany;
  • TOVA partners in the United States:
    • New York Blood Center; Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia;
    • Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge;
    • Sabin Vaccine Institute, Washington DC;
    • Baylor College of Medicine, Houston.

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