Baylor College of Medicine pioneers seek new, low-cost COVID-19 vaccine

Maria Elena Bottazzi speaks at the BSB about research on vaccinology. Katy Mae Turner | Photographer

By Luke Lattanzi | Staff Writer

Two vaccinology pioneers from Baylor College of Medicine are looking to continue advancing their new form of COVID-19 vaccine technology to help struggling countries increase their immunization rates at a cheaper price.

Dr. Peter J. Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, have developed a new COVID-19 vaccine called Corbevax, that is different from the three main ones developed by pharmaceutical companies Moderna, Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer.

The newly developed vaccine, Corbevax, has been used to vaccinate over 70 million people in India, and its counterpart, Indovac, has seen over 10 million doses in Indonesia.

“As a technology, [Corbevax and Indovac] utilizes a way of producing vaccines that is based on recombinant protein technologies, which is on some level a conventional technology because it has already proven to have worked before,” Bottazzi said.

Vaccines made with recombinant protein technology use a specific protein of a virus to provoke a strong immune response in order to help the body better fight infection. They can be used with almost anyone and are useful to those with compromised immune systems, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The technology has already been used to create vaccines that have long since been routinely administered, such as the widely-known Hepatitis B vaccine, Bottazzi said.

Bottazzi also said recombinant protein technology can be made in many settings around the world in a manner less logistically challenging than the mRNA vaccine technology made by Moderna, Johnson and Johnson and Pfizer.

“The recombinant protein technology also brings a different dimension,” Bottazi said. “It can be made in many settings around the world. There’s economies of scale because there’s so much know-how and infrastructure, which makes it more affordable. They also don’t have very onerous requirements. You can keep them and store them at refrigeration compared to some more difficult ways of storing them.”

Bottazzi also said that due to Corbevax and Indovac’s conventional vaccine technology, there can be less hesitation among populations who might be skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines, particularly those produced with new mRNA technology.

Dr. Hotez said he’s also focused on combating COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theories to reduce hesitancy among the population.

“Unfortunately over the past couple of years, Texas has become an epicenter of anti-vaccine activism and the anti-science movement,” Dr. Hotez said. “Of the 92,000 Texans who lost their lives during the COVID pandemic, about half of those were unnecessary. They happened because they refused a COVID vaccine. They were victims of anti-vaccine activism.”

One of the most notable features of the Corbevax vaccine — aside from the vaccine technology it uses — is that it’s unpatented, making it much more affordable to struggling countries suffering from vaccine inequities. It was also meant to “enable the decolonization” of the vaccine-making process, enfranchising countries that would otherwise be shutout of vaccine production.

“Our technology that we created in our labs was really intended to enable the decolonization of the way you do the vaccine sciences, empowering local, regional producers to make something that they can claim [for themselves],” Bottazzi said. “We didn’t have to go through big multinational companies to be able to use our vaccine technology. We didn’t have to use any for-profit, multinational entity.”

Dr. Hotez also said mRNA vaccine technology didn’t develop fast enough to combat COVID-19 during the height of the pandemic due to it’s novelty. The mRNA vaccines were approved for American and European countries, but not for struggling countries such as Africa or Asia. Corbevax and Indovac, he said, provide an effective and affordable alternative.

“What we set out was to make a vaccine that was specifically compatible with lower and middle income countries because the world paid for that in a big way, not having vaccines right away for lower and middle income countries,” Dr. Hotez said.

According to Dr. Hotez, the COVID-19’s Delta variant arose out of an unvaccinated population in India, and the Omicron variant arose out of an unvaccinated population in Africa.

“The world paid for vaccine inequality and vaccine inequity, and that’s what we’re all about, trying to fix that,” Dr. Hotez said. “I think we’ve provided proof of concept that you don’t have to be a multinational pharma company to do big things.”

Luke Lattanzi is a senior political science major with a minor in news-editorial originally from Monroe Township, New Jersey, now based in Houston. In his last semester at the Lariat, he is excited to learn more about what it takes to report for a daily news publication. Luke also serves as assistant editor for conservative digital magazine American Pigeon. He hopes to work for a publication as a reporter after graduation.