A vaccine cleared in December for use in India may help solve one of the thorniest issues in global public health: how to provide low-income countries with a safe, effective and affordable COVID-19 vaccine.
The vaccine is called CORBEVAX. It uses old but proven vaccine technology and can be made much more easily than most if not all COVID vaccines in use today.
“CORBEVAX is a game-changer,” says Dr. Keith martin, Executive Director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Washington, DC “This will enable countries around the world, especially low-income countries, to be able to produce and distribute these vaccines in an affordable, efficient and safe manner. . “
The history of CORBEVAX begins about twenty years ago. Pierre Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi were medical researchers at George Washington University in Washington, DC, where they worked on vaccines and treatments for so-called neglected tropical diseases such as schistosomiasis and hookworm.
When a strain of coronavirus known as SARS broke out in 2003, they decided to tackle the disease. After moving to Houston to affiliate with Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, they created a vaccine candidate using protein subunit technology. This involves the use of proteins from a virus or bacteria that can induce an immune response but not cause disease.
“It’s the same technology as the hepatitis B vaccine that has been around for decades,” Hotez says.
Their SARS vaccine candidate looked promising, but the SARS epidemic then came to a halt. No sign of illness, no need for a vaccine.
When a new strain of coronavirus sparked the COVID-19 pandemic, Hotez and Bottazzi thought they could dust off their old technology and modify it for use against COVID. After all, the virus causing COVID and the virus causing SARS are quite similar.
Hotez says they tried to get government officials interested in the vaccine, but they weren’t impressed.
“People were so obsessed with innovation that no one thought, ‘Hey, maybe we could use an easy, long-lasting, low-cost vaccine that can immunize the whole world,” Hotez said.
“Honestly, we couldn’t get any traction in the United States, but our mission is still to enable the production and use of technology for the production and use of low- and middle-income countries,” Bottazzi recalls. .
They therefore turned to private philanthropies. A major early donor was the JPB Foundation At New York.
“When people say: ‘why did we move [from Washington, D.C.] in Texas ? Well, we knew it was a great philanthropic environment. So this is really a Texas vaccine, “although there have been other smaller donors across the country.
Hotez says that unlike mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna and the viral vector vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, protein subunit vaccines like CORBEVAX have a history. So he and Bottazzi were relatively certain that CORBEVAX would be safe and effective.
“And it’s cheap, a dollar, fifty dollars a dose,” Hotez said. “You’re not going to get any cheaper than this.”
Clinical trials have shown that they are correct in believing that CORBEVAX will work. An as yet unpublished study conducted in India involving 3,000 volunteers found the vaccine to be 90% effective in preventing disease caused by the original strain of the COVID virus and 80% effective against the delta variant. It is still tested against omicron.
But CORBEVAX is already entering the real world. Last month, the vaccine received emergency use authorization from Indian regulators. Indian vaccine maker called Organic E Ltd is now making the vaccine. The company claims to produce 100 million doses per month and has already sold 300 million doses to the Indian government.
“The real beauty of the CORBEVAX vaccine created by Drs Hotez and Bottazzi is that the intellectual property of this vaccine will be accessible to everyone,” said Keith Martin. “So you can get manufacturers in Senegal, South Africa and Latin America to be able to produce this particular vaccine.” In contrast, the makers of Pfizer and Moderna, for example, do not share their recipe.
One drawback of CORBEVAX technology: it cannot be changed as quickly as mRNA vaccines to accommodate new variants that may arise.
This is forcing public health officials to make tough choices.
“Something that can be adapted the fastest versus something that can be adapted relatively quickly, but more importantly, can be manufactured at a large global capacity and at a much lower production cost,” explains Prashant Yadav, senior researcher at the Center for Global Development in Washington, DC The idea is that some protection may be better than no protection.
Of course, the ideal vaccine would have both qualities, and Peter Hotez is working on trying to develop technologies that can do just that.
“There is no problem pushing innovation,” he says. “I think that’s one of the really positive features of the US COVID vaccination program. The problem was that it wasn’t balanced with a wallet or oldies but goodies.”
Hotez hopes his old but goodie will usher in a better future for the world.
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