Researchers in the United States have created a low-cost, easy-to-manufacture COVID-19 vaccine that may provide a solution for: unequal access to vaccines in developing countries.
Physicians Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development bypassed the patent restrictions of major pharmaceutical companies and used traditional vaccine technology that could be rapidly deployed to help vaccinate the world’s population.
“There are countries that are just ridiculously low in rates of access and vaccine coverage. We really need to do better,” Bottazzi told Al Jazeera. “We really need to vaccinate the whole world.”
The world has produced about 10 billion doses of vaccine since mid-2020, but more than 70 percent of vaccines produced last year were consumed by wealthy countries, according to public health experts. Two years after the coronavirus pandemic, there are still significant parts of the world largely unvaccinated, amid the risk that dangerous new variants — such as Delta and Omicron — will continue to emerge.
While major vaccine makers such as Pfizer and Moderna fight to protect their intellectual property rights, Bottazzi and Hotez have developed a vaccine that can be freely used by pharmaceutical manufacturers around the world.
Called Corbevax, it relies on conventional manufacturing methods and is based on a model the pair developed to tackle SARS, a strain of coronavirus that broke out in the early 2000s.
Corbevax is already approved for emergency use in India, where a vaccine manufacturer produces 100 million doses per month, according to Bottazzi and Hotez.
Vaccine manufacturers in Bangladesh and Indonesia have also been licensed, and production talks are underway in Botswana, meaning that hundreds of millions of doses per month could soon be produced locally in countries that need vaccines most.
“It’s pretty exciting,” Bottazzi said. “We’ve never made a billion of anything.”
Corbevax marks “a very important advance” in the fight against COVID-19, said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of global health law at Georgetown Law in Washington, DC.
“Texas is really doing this the right way by giving away their intellectual property and helping with technology transfer,” Gostin told Al Jazeera. “It has the potential to be a transformative addition to our vaccine arsenal.”
The broader US vaccine development program, Operation Warp Speed, had focused primarily on new vaccine technology based on messenger RNA (mRNA), which teaches cells how to produce a protein that triggers an immune response. But while mRNA vaccines can be developed quickly, they are difficult to manufacture or distribute on a large scale compared to older types of vaccines.
“If we only use mRNA technology, we could never vaccinate the world,” Bottazzi said.
But despite the risk of new variants emerging from large unvaccinated populations in the South, Bottazzi and Hotez said they failed to spark interest in their White House project.
“Nobody cared in the US government, and nobody really cares anymore,” Hotez told Al Jazeera. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on the matter.
Instead, Bottazzi and Hotez turned to nonprofit and philanthropic sources, including the Kleberg Foundation, the Dunn Foundation, and the JPB Foundation.
They raised $7 million to fund the venture, and have now licensed the vaccine “without patents or obligations” to pharmaceutical companies in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.
“This concept is called Southern property by some, others call it decolonization,” Hotez said. “In other words, we are not going to dictate to other countries now. They are going to own this.”
The average cost of Corbevax in India is expected to be $2 per dose, the Indian government estimates, and its predicted efficacy in preventing serious disease is about 90 percent, according to initial data from Indian pharmaceutical company Biological E.
In Africa, many countries are below 10 percent of populations that are fully vaccinated, a key metric tracked by the World Health Organization. Nigeria, a country of about 212 million people, has been fully vaccinated less than 2.5 percent of its population.
Meanwhile, the US has fully vaccinated 63 percent of the population, and the benchmarks are even better in Western Europe. Large parts of Asia, South America and the Middle East have yet to catch up. Iraq’s percentage of fully vaccinated is 15 percent, while Syria is five percent and Yemen is one percent.
“There is a huge shortage of vaccine capacity” [in developing nations]Prashant Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, told Al Jazeera. “We need a lot more supply this year.”
The US government has pledged to donate more than a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2022, with President Joe Biden boasting that the US is donating more doses than any other country. So far, 370 million doses have been shipped, but “it’s still just a drop in the ocean,” Gostin said.
The rollout of the cheaper, easier-to-manufacture Corbevax could eventually dwarf those numbers, Hotez commenting:[We’re on track to meet or exceed] the entire U.S. government output for global vaccines.”