Polio kills or paralyzes hundreds of thousands of children every year. To global acclaim, in 1953 the American virologist Jonas Salk announced that his team had succeeded in creating the first vaccine against the disease. Asked on television who the owner of the patent was, Salk responded with one of the most famous phrases in the history of science: “Well, the people I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”
The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has been a very different story. The revenue of US multinational pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna, as well as Germany’s BioNTech, derived from Covid-19 vaccine sales is estimated at €62 billion ($70.2 billion), according to calculations by Spanish business and finance newspaper Cinco Días.
The microbiologist María Elena Bottazzi, by contrast, proposes a return to Salk’s philosophy. Her team has developed a new Covid-19 vaccine and is offering it to the people, patent-free. India has already granted it emergency use authorization.
Bottazzi, 56, co-directs the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and is the Associate Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, two private non-profit institutions based in Houston. The researcher, who was born in the Italian city of Genoa and grew up in Honduras, says that Corbevax is “the world’s Covid-19 vaccine.” Bottazzi hopes that other countries – Indonesia, Bangladesh and Botswana – will soon follow India’s lead.
The vaccine was developed using a process employed for decades for the hepatitis B vaccine, meaning there are plenty of manufacturers with the ability to produce it, at a cost of a little over a dollar per dose. According to a press release from the Texas Children’s Hospital, Corbevax is up to 90% effective against the original coronavirus (the Ancestral-Wuhan strain), although details of the clinical trials have not yet been published. “Now we are confirming its effectiveness against the omicron variant, but we believe it will maintain a good level of protection,” says Bottazzi.
Question. You have said that Corbevax is “the world’s vaccine.” Does that mean that those made by Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and Janssen are not for the world?
Answer. We say it is for the world because the capacity to produce it on a sufficient scale to cover global requirements is there. The technology to produce it already exists in various parts of the world. If Brazil wants to start producing it tomorrow, they have the technology, the factories and the know-how. Any manufacturer who can produce hepatitis B vaccines can produce this vaccine on a vast scale. That is the concept of the world’s vaccine. What I have seen with the other vaccines is that although the intention is that the whole world should have access to them, there are limitations when it comes to large-scale production, storage and intellectual property. There are many more limitations that are preventing these vaccines from being produced and received across the world.
Q. You are determined not to earn a single dollar from your vaccine?
A. Our technology is open. All of the processes have been published and they are not patented.
Q. Pfizer and Moderna executives have earned hundreds of millions over the past two years. What’s your opinion?
A. Multinationals have to answer to their shareholders but, in the context of a global emergency, obviously you need to be a little more altruistic. They have made a huge contribution by developing these vaccines, but it should be remembered they received enormous public subsidies. In the US, Operation Warp Speed awarded hundreds of millions of dollars to these companies. They should be more altruistic when calculating their profits and working on how to improve global public accessibility. At the end of the day, it is citizens who contribute with their taxes so that the US government can grant these companies subsidies. It is public money and we are talking about an emergency due to a global pandemic.
This vaccine can provide relief to countries that don’t have funds to keep buying expensive vaccines
Q. You have waived intellectual property and not patented your vaccine. The contrast with Pfizer and Moderna is amazing.
A. It’s a model we have been working with for the last 20 years. We are always trying to develop vaccines against neglected tropical diseases. We know that the end-users are underprivileged populations. You need to have an open-source mentality to be able to decolonize, to ensure that these vaccines are not produced only by high-income countries. They should be produced in the same countries where they are needed.
Q. How does your vaccine contribute to the goal of protecting the world against Covid-19?
A. I believe that in 2022 we will manage to bridge this inequality gap. The Indian company Biological E. can produce 100 million doses per month. We are talking about over a billion vaccines annually. If you add to that Biofarma in Indonesia, which can also produce 100 million a month, and Incepta Pharmaceuticals in Bangladesh, which can produce a similar amount, there is a snowball effect. The authorization in India will provide more confidence so that other manufacturers can speed up the authorization process with the regulatory bodies in their countries. The World Health Organization needs a different example to be able to accelerate production using conventional platforms to reach populations in need.
Q. The co-director at the US Center for Vaccine Development, Peter Hotez, estimates that nine billion doses are needed to vaccinate the entire world.
A. That’s correct. This vaccine can reduce that gap. Furthermore, economically speaking, countries cannot continue buying high-cost vaccines. This vaccine can provide relief to countries that don’t have the funds to keep buying expensive vaccines.
Q. Initially it was estimated that Moderna’s vaccine would cost $23 (€21), Pfizer’s $17 (€15) and AstraZeneca’s $3.40 (€3). How much will yours cost?
A. In the range of what vaccines against hepatitis B cost: between $1.5 [€1.32] and $2 [€1.76].
Q. You hold triple nationality – Honduran, Italian and American – and hope that your vaccine can help to fully vaccinate the Americas. Do you think it will be essential on the continent?
A. I think so, yes, definitely. We need the final push. There are several vaccines that don’t have such good immunity duration, particularly in the context of the new variants. I think our vaccine will bridge that gap.
Q. Which other vaccines are you referring to?
A. Those that are based on inactivated viruses. There have been accessibility issues with [the Russian-made] Sputnik, for example. Several countries opted to receive a type of vaccine and I think they are now seeing that they have to fill the inventory again, because they have to keep vaccinating the population.
Q. You’ve said that Corbevax is halal.
A. We’ve started working with the Middle East and we saw that it was very important to them. We ensure that we do not use any animal-derived reagents. It is all carried out with synthetic and vegetable processes.
Q. One of your financial backers is a vodka company.
A. Yes, there is a lot of philanthropy in Texas. One of the companies is called Tito’s Vodka. They have been very philanthropic during the pandemic. They provided us with funds for the research and development of these prototypes, together with many family foundations and other entities. Tito’s Vodka gave us a million dollars and now they have given us another amount to look into possibilities for a universal coronavirus vaccine.
Multinationals have made a huge contribution by developing these vaccines, but it should be remembered they received enormous public subsidies
Q. What was the budget for this vaccine?
A. Over these 20 months, more or less $5 million [€4.4 million] at our center. It’s not a big amount.
Q. How is it possible to develop a vaccine with $5 million?
A. Biological E., our industrial partner, had their own mechanisms. It’s a private company and they contributed family money in and I imagine that they had funds from other institutions as well.
Q. Around 44,000 people took part in the Pfizer clinical trials worldwide. Only 3,000 participated in yours. Why?
A. We are in a very different situation. People had already been infected or vaccinated with other vaccines. Now, clinical trials tend to be bridging studies, to examine the correlates of protection [a study of the defenses generated by the vaccine to deduce efficacy]. Biological E. carried out a superiority trial by making an immunological comparison with AstraZeneca.
Q. There are people who have not been vaccinated because they incorrectly believed RNA vaccines are produced via genetic manipulation and because there were private companies in the background making a lot of money. What would you say to anyone who is unsure about getting the Pfizer vaccine?
A. There is a lot of misinformation on social media. Billions of people have been vaccinated with RNA technology [Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna] and with adenoviruses [AstraZeneca, Janssen, Sputnik]. The safety profile of these vaccines has been very well regarded. These accusations of genetic manipulation are not true. There is huge benefit in being able to get vaccinated and avoid serious illness or even death.
Q. In other words, if someone can receive a Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Janssen vaccine, you would recommend they do so?
A. Absolutely, yes.
Q. What other vaccines have your team developed that have actually reached people’s arms?
A. We have a program for the human hookworm infection, which is intestinal. This vaccine is now in Phase II trials [involving hundreds of volunteers]. We have done clinical studies in the US, Brazil and Gabon. Obviously, it all goes at a snail’s pace. It’s taken us 10 or 15 years to get to this stage. We also have a vaccine against schistosomiasis [caused by parasitic flatworms] in Phase II trials in Uganda. And a very interesting program concerns Chagas disease [a tropical parasitic disease]. Our intention is to start clinical trials next year.