Baylor professors hope to release COVID-19 vaccine by summer or fall of 2021

Dr. Peter Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi have developed a coronavirus vaccine. Their vaccine will start testing next month, with advanced trials hopefully starting in January. (Courtesy Baylor College of Medicine)

Vivian Roach | Staff Writer

Baylor professors hope to see rollout of their COVID-19 vaccine — produced by Biological E — by the late summer or early fall of next year.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, and Associate Dean Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi have been working together for the last 20 years. They are the only professors at Baylor College of Medicine that are actually professors at Baylor University, as well.

The School of Tropical Medicine and their Center for Vaccine Development is within the Texas Medical Center, affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. The nonprofit organization has been operating in Texas since 2011.

The Baylor College of Medicine provides the resources to the nonprofit organization to develop vaccines. The college not only provides the laboratories and equipment, but also the traditional academic framework of ethics for biosafety and protocols.

“It’s very nice because we not only are developing products, but we do it openly, transparently, with not really very onerous intellectual property, but rather very open for people to come and learn as we’re doing, and therefore, it’s shared,” Bottazzi said.

The organization was able to move quickly with vaccine development when COVID-19 first emerged because it’s had a coronavirus vaccine program for the last decade.

“We already had six years of experience having gotten the SARS vaccine, having done the MERS vaccine, and so what we learned from those programs, we already knew exactly how to find the right sequence,” Hotez said. “And so what we used to do in five years, we basically condensed into five months, and with all the same rigor, the same quality, the same type of techniques.”

Additionally, their vaccines are very simple. They use what Bottazzi called “bread-and-butter technology.” The same technology used in the Hepatitis B vaccine, for example, was used for the coronavirus vaccine. The backbone of an established vaccine ensures its reliability.

“Vaccines that are made with the same system have been licensed and have been used in many, many people, and so we already have a precedent. There’s already people that can produce them at large scales. We’ve already shown with the platform, they’re safe,” Bottazzi said.

Proven technology not only speeds up development but also keeps the vaccine low cost. New factories or locations for production don’t need to be made, and new training doesn’t need to be done. Hence using the same technology as the Hepatitis B vaccine, which costs around $1 or $2 to make, Hotez said.

Their vaccine will start testing next month, with advanced trials hopefully starting in January. In late summer or early fall of next year, Botazzi said they hoped the vaccine would be licensed for distribution.

With first generation vaccines coming out in early 2021, she said they won’t be the only ones. These will be close to the big multinational vaccines in the news now, Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and still need to be used in context of other tools, such as masks and social distancing, Bottazzi said.

“They may not protect against severity of infection, they may protect against severity of disease, or how much disease you get. We don’t know how long the protection is also going to last,” Bottazzi said. “So we still need to continue developing what we call the second generation vaccine.”

These second generation vaccines will hopefully help improve the first ones, since with time they will know more about how to make them better, with a higher ability to protect individuals.

Though vaccine development is hopeful, Hotez said to still take precautions around other students and family members, social distancing and wearing masks. As it is a new virus pathogen, it is very unpredictable, he said.

“We are expecting a fall return of COVID-19. Expect numbers will go up in Texas and maybe worse in the northern states. It’s already starting to go up now in Wisconsin and the Dakotas and now into Missouri,” Hotez said. “I think it’s really important to have situational awareness, especially as it gets colder. That’s going to be a dangerous time.”

The organization hopes to contribute to the future of vaccine development as Hotez said this won’t be the only coronavirus. By partnering with an academic institution, such as Baylor, the organization is able to teach students how to develop vaccines in labs. Hotez hopes to also expand educational offerings with Baylor beyond the Tropical Institute, as in master’s degrees with the College of Arts and Sciences.