A team of Texas-based scientists say they have developed a COVID-19 vaccine using proven technology that is safe, effective, and affordable and will be a "game changer" for poor countries.
The vaccine, called CORBEVAX, was authorized for use in India last month after clinical trials showed promising results. According to NPR, an unpublished study conducted in India found the vaccine was 90% effective in preventing disease caused by the original coronavirus strain and 80% effective against the Delta variant. The vaccine is still being tested against Omicron.
The hope is that this new vaccine can be manufactured and distributed much more cheaply and efficiently than either of the mRNA vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna or the viral vector vaccine from Johnson & Johnson.
Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi are the medical researchers responsible for developing the vaccine. They began work on what became CORBEVAX around 19 years ago, at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where they were studying vaccines and treatments for tropical diseases such as schistosomiasis and hookworm, NPR reported.
During the SARS outbreak of 2003, they shifted the focus of their research toward developing a vaccine for that disease. They relocated to Houston to work with Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development and developed a vaccine candidate that used protein subunit technology. NPR explained that this type of vaccine uses proteins from a pathogen that can induce an immune response in the body but does not cause disease.
"It's the same technology as the hepatitis B vaccine that's been around for decades," Hotez told the outlet.
He emphasized that protein subunit vaccines have a proven track record of safety and authorized use, which gave the developers confidence they would be safe and effective. The mRNA vaccines in widespread use in the U.S. have been developed for decades but were first brought to market during the COVID-19 pandemic with emergency use authorization from the Food & Drug Administration.
All vaccines approved for use in the U.S. have met the FDA's rigorous safety standards, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While the vaccine developed by Hotez and Bottazzi showed promise, the SARS outbreak ended before a vaccine was needed. Fast-forward to the SARS-2-CoV outbreak of late 2019, and Hotez and Bottazzi decided to investigate whether their abandoned vaccine technology could be adapted for use against COVID-19, a virus very similar to SARS.
They wanted to develop a vaccine candidate, but their work was ignored by the government.
"People were so fixated on innovation that nobody thought, 'Hey, maybe we could use a low-cost, durable, easy-breezy vaccine that can vaccinate the whole world,'" Hotez told NPR.
"We really honestly couldn't get any traction in the U.S., but our mission is always to enable technologies for low- and middle-income countries production and use," Bottazzi added.
The researchers had to turn to private charities for funding. The New York-based JPB Foundation was an early supporter of their work, according to NPR.
"The rest were all Texas philanthropies: the Kleberg Foundation, the [John S.] Dunn Foundation, Tito's Vodka," Hotez said. NPR added that the MD Anderson Foundation gave generously as well.
"When people say, 'Why did we move [from Washington, D.C.] to Texas?' Well, we knew that this was a great philanthropic environment. So this is really very much a Texas vaccine," Hotez explained.
Data suggests this Texas vaccine is effective and the technology behind it has a proven safety record, but the developers are most excited about the fact that it is extremely affordable.
"It's cheap, a dollar, dollar-fifty a dose," Hotez said. "You're not going to get less expensive than that."
On top of that, Hotez and Bottazzi have ensured that the intellectual property behind the vaccine will be publicly available. Unlike big pharmaceutical companies that are keeping their vaccine recipes secret, the CORBEVAX developers want their vaccine to be widely shared at low cost by any vaccine manufacturer that is able to produce it.
"CORBEVAX is a game changer," said Dr. Keith Martin, executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Washington, D.C. "It's going to enable countries around the world, particularly low-income countries, to be able to produce these vaccines and distribute them in a way that's going to affordable, effective and safe."
The Indian government granted CORBEVAX emergency use authorization last month, NPR reported. The vaccine is being produced by an Indian company called Bioological E Ltd., which says it is producing 100 million doses per month and has already sold 300 million doses to the Indian government.
But before CORBEVAX sounds too good to be true, there are important limitations to note. NPR reports that one drawback of CORBEVAX's technology is that it can't be modified as quickly as an mRNA vaccine to adapt to new virus variants.
Public health officials will need to decide whether they want a reliable, cheap, easily produced vaccine that may not cover every virus variant or a more expensive, adaptable vaccines that take longer to make and are prized for their novelty.