In the rush to vaccinate the world against COVID-19, researchers in Texas have made a breakthrough.
They’ve developed a vaccine called CORBEVAX that can be manufactured cheaply and quickly in low-income countries, without the complications of licensing, patents, or limited supply.
“We want to help the world,” says Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, who worked to develop the vaccine. “We think it’s a gamechanger.”
Developing nations have struggled with vaccination, after limited doses of expensive vaccines were snapped up by wealthier countries.
The vaccination rate in Canada, nearing 80 per cent, is in stark contrast with a nation like Nigeria, where only 2.2 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated.
“It just is incredibly iniquitous that low-income countries cannot get access to vaccines that will enable them to save their own lives,” says Dr. Keith Martin, a former MP and now executive director of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Washington, D.C. Martin, represented Esquimalt—Juan de Fuca from 1993 to 2011.
CORBEVAX could help close the gap.
Unlike the mRNA vaccines used in high-income nations, CORBEVAX is produced the same way as more traditional immunizations. The shot uses synthetic virus proteins to induce an immune response, without causing disease — the same way the hepatitis B vaccine works.
The technology to create those types of vaccines is readily available in many countries. What’s more, the background research — effectively, CORBEVAX’s recipe — is available free to anyone.
“Anybody can look at our published data and if they want to, they could even replicate our vaccine without even contacting us,” Bottazzi says. “If you want to develop vaccines that are for the public good, you need to share your knowledge.”
Dr. Bottazzi, and her colleague Dr. Peter Hotez, began their research into the vaccine during the 2003 SARS outbreak, but stopped when that outbreak ended.
When COVID-19 emerged nearly two decades later, they resumed their research at Baylor College of Medicine and the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development. They looked at the genetic makeup of the new virus, and realized what they had.
“We immediately said, ‘Oh my god, this is like 80 per cent similar to the same sequence,” she recalls. “We very rapidly saw that we could re-engineer and adapt all the lessons that we had learned.”
In clinical trials, the two-dose regimen has shown to be up to 90 per cent effective against the original strain of the virus, and 80 per cent effective against the Delta variant. Studies into boosters, pediatric use, and efficacy against the Omicron variant are ongoing.
In India, where CORBEVAX is already authorized for use, local pharmaceutical company Biological E. Limited is now preparing to manufacture 1.2 billion doses per year.
“If we want to be able to get in front of this pandemic, if we want to stop chasing behind it, we are going to have to vaccinate the world,” cautions Dr. Anne Rimoin, an epidemiologist at UCLA, who warns the next dangerous variant could easily emerge from an unvaccinated population.
“We’re already paying the price of not having an equal distribution of vaccines globally.”
While CORBEVAX was not developed for high-income nations like Canada or the United States, Dr. Bottazzi acknowledges it has already found appeal with some vaccine skeptics, who’ve questioned mRNA technology or are wary of products made by large pharmaceutical companies.
“You have no idea the number of messages we’re getting daily,” Bottazzi says.
“There are so many people that say, this is what I’ve been waiting for, something that comes with a prior history of safety that I’m already familiar with.”