Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

Researchers in the United States have created an inexpensive, easy-to-manufacture COVID-19 vaccine that provides a solution for unequal vaccine access in developing countries.

To circumvent the patent restrictions of large pharmaceutical firms, doctors Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez at Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development used traditional vaccine technology that could be deployed quickly to help vaccinate the world population.

“There are countries that are just ridiculously low in the percentage of access and vaccine coverage. We really need to do a better job, ”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 the vaccines produced last year have been consumed by rich 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 manufacturers such as Pfizer and Moderna are fighting to protect their intellectual property rights, Bottazzi and Hotez have developed a vaccine that can be used freely by pharmaceutical manufacturers around the world.

Called Corbevax, it relies on conventional production methods and is based on a model the couple developed to address SARS, a coronavirus strain that broke out in the early 2000s.

electron microscope image provided by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases - Rocky Mountain Laboratories shows SARS-CoV-2 virus particles causing COVID-19 isolated from a patient in the US, emerging from the surface of cells in a laboratory cultivated.The SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 isolated from a US patient will be seen under an electron microscope in July 2020 [The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases via AP]

Corbevax has already been approved for emergency use in India, where a vaccine manufacturer produces 100 million doses a month, according to Bottazzi and Hotez.

Licenses have also been granted to vaccine manufacturers in Bangladesh and Indonesia, and production talks are underway in Botswana, which means that hundreds of millions of doses a month could soon be produced locally in countries that need vaccines the most.

“It’s quite exciting,” Bottazzi said. “We have never made a billion of anything before.”

‘Transformative’ potential

Corbevax is 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 it the right way by giving away their intellectual property and working together in technology transfer,” Gostin told Al Jazeera. “It has the potential to be a transformative addition to our vaccine arsenal.”

The broader U.S. vaccine development program, Operation Warp Speed, focused primarily on new vaccine technology based on messenger RNA (mRNA), which teaches cells how to make a protein that elicits an immune response. However, although mRNA vaccines can be developed rapidly, they are difficult to produce or distribute on a large scale compared to older types of vaccines.

“If we only used mRNA technology, we would never be able to vaccinate the world,” Bottazzi said.

President Donald Trump speaks during a "Operation Warp Speed ​​Vaccine Summit" at the White House complex, in Washington.Former President Donald Trump launched ‘Operation Warp Speed’ in 2020 to provide government support to US pharmaceutical manufacturers to rapidly produce vaccines based on mRNA technology [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

Yet, despite the risk of new variants emerging from large unvaccinated populations in the Global South, Bottazzi and Hotez said they could not draw any interest in their White House project.

“Nobody in the US government cared, and nobody really cares yet,” Hotez told Al Jazeera. A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Al Jazeera.

Bottazzi and Hotez have instead turned to non-profit and philanthropic sources, including the Kleberg Foundation, the Dunn Foundation and the JPB Foundation.

They raised $ 7 million to finance the business, and have now licensed the vaccine “with no patents or strings attached” to pharmaceutical companies in India, Bangladesh and Indonesia.

“Some people refer to this concept as a southern ownership, others call decolonization,” Hotez said. “In other words, we are not going to dictate to other countries now. They are going to own it. ”

Build capacity

The average cost of Corbevax in India is expected to be $ 2 per dose, the Indian government has estimated, and its predicted effectiveness in preventing serious diseases is about 90 percent, according to initial data from the Indian pharmaceutical firm Biological E.

In Africa, many countries are below 10 percent in the sections of their populations that are fully vaccinated, a key measure followed by the World Health Organization. Nigeria, a nation of about 212 million people, has been fully vaccinated less than 2.5 percent of its population.

A woman receives a coronavirus vaccine in Abuja, Nigeria,A woman receives a coronavirus vaccine in November 2021 in Abuja, Nigeria [Gbemiga Olamikan/AP Photo]

Meanwhile, the US has fully vaccinated 63 percent of its population, and the standards are even better in Western Europe. Significant parts of Asia, South America and the Middle East have yet to catch up. Iraq’s fully vaccinated rate is 15 percent, while Syria’s at five percent and Yemen’s at 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 stock this year.”

The US government has promised to donate more than one 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 nation. So far, 370 million doses have been shipped – but “it’s still just a drop in the bucket”, Gostin said.

The launch of the cheaper, easier-to-manufacture Corbevax could eventually dwarf those numbers, with Hotez remarking: “[We’re on track to meet or exceed] the entire output of the US government for global vaccines. “

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