Texas scientists develop a ‘people’s vaccine,’ offer it free to the world
Dr. Peter J. Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi co-direct the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development, where the new patent-free Corbevax vaccine for COVID-19 was developed. | via Texas Children's Hospital

Two Texas scientists at a small non-profit research institute have created a new COVID-19 vaccine and offered it “no strings attached” to the world as a “people’s vaccine.” The scientists are following in the footsteps of Dr. Jonas Salk, the discoverer of the polio vaccine, who refused to profit from the discovery, considering it a gift to humanity.

Drs. Peter Hotez, a well-known foe of the anti-vaccine lobby, and Maria Elena Bottazzi, a Honduran immigrant, announced the development of Corbevax on Dec. 28. The vaccine is as effective as the Astra-Zeneca vaccine and safe for children in trials.

Bottazzi and Hotez work at Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development (CVD) in Houston, affiliated with Baylor College of Medicine. Vaccine development was funded primarily by philanthropists and other private funders like Tito’s Vodka distillers. They received a small grant from the U.S. government.

“Two years into the pandemic, Corbevax is the first COVID vaccine designed specifically for global health. It is a milestone for global vaccine equity, something we believe will overcome vaccine hesitancy, and serves as a blueprint for how to develop a potent vaccine for pandemic use in the absence of substantial public funding,” they wrote.

Hotez and Bottazzi collaborate with smaller vaccine producers in several countries, including Biological E in India, which is committed to producing 1 billion doses in 2022. The company has made 150 million doses already.

CVD licenses the Corbevax technology with no strings attached. Biological E says it can produce Corbevax for $2.50 a dose, about one-tenth of Big Pharma’s price for COVID vaccines.

CVD has similar licensing agreements with vaccine producers in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Botswana, and discussions are taking place with the World Health Organization (WHO) to share the vaccine globally. Hotez and Bottazzi won’t receive a penny from the arrangements, and Baylor College only gets a fee.

Corbevax will soon vaccinate more people globally than vaccine donations from the Biden administration, which has pledged 1.2 billion doses, and other G-7 countries. China, Russia, and Cuba are also making vaccines available globally.

Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and other vaccine makers use mRNA technology to produce their vaccines. The process has a protein that triggers the body’s immune system.

Bottazzi and Hotez make Corbevax through a microbial fermentation process, similar to the one which produces the recombinant Hepatitis B vaccine. Over the past ten years, their research familiarized them with coronavirus spike proteins, which contributed to the knowledge leading to this generation of COVID-19 vaccines.

The open-source microbial fermentation process has been around for 40 years and is used widely in the Global South. Many scientists, labs, and vaccine makers worldwide are familiar with the process, and local production facilities can quickly reproduce it. Hospitals, clinics, and pop-up facilities can store Corbevax with simple refrigeration, making it ideal for transporting, storing, and deploying in many developing nations.

Hotez said it was hard for CVD to gain recognition for their research at the beginning of the pandemic when the Trump administration showered so much attention and money on the big pharmaceutical firms and spewed out massive disinformation. He said the mRNA vaccines made by Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech, and others are great because of production speed but are not scalable for global vaccination.

Large swathes of the world are unvaccinated, creating “vaccine apartheid,” and new variants like Delta and Omicron emerge as a consequence. Without easily available and scalable global vaccination, new variants will continue to emerge, prolonging the pandemic and needlessly killing people.

“I harbor no ill will toward pharmaceutical companies,” said Hotez. “They do a lot of good with donating vaccines to Gavi, (Vaccine Alliance coordinated by the U.N.), or Covax, coordinated by the World Health Organization. But my premise is having that as your only model for making vaccines for the world, it doesn’t work.”

“Texas Children’s Hospital’s commitment to sharing technology is a challenge to the pharma giants and the false narrative that vaccine production and medical innovation thrive through secrecy and exclusivity,” said Peter Maybarduk, director of the advocacy group Public Citizen. “If Texas Children’s Hospital can do it, why can’t Pfizer and Moderna?”

The proof is in the pudding. When vaccine development is left in the hands of Big Pharma, the result is populations of wealthy capitalist countries are primarily vaccinated, and much of the rest of the world, including nearly the entire continent of Africa, is not. Local producers must be involved.

“It’s crucial to give support to vaccine producers in the Global South. That’s what’s not happened, and it gets me angry. And I said I’m not going to put up with it,’” said Hotez. Pharmaceutical corporations have reaped nearly $100 billion in profits, raking in $1,000 per second, on top of vast public subsidies they got to develop the vaccines.

“This was not a time for profiteering,” he said. “The world, the U.S. was in crisis. God gave me the knowledge to be a physician-scientist in order to make life-saving interventions. This is the time I need to step up and do something for the world. It never really occurred to me to think about patents.”

Hotez said Salk, whom he met toward the end of his life, greatly inspired him. “When asked why he wouldn’t put a patent on it, Salk replied, ‘You can’t patent the sun.’ I’ve taken that literally,” said Hotez, who has spent his career creating vaccines for diseases of poverty, including one for human hookworm, that Big Pharma ignored.

“My life’s quest has always been science in the pursuit of humanitarian goals,” Hotez told journalist Barkha Dutt. “The irony is all we know how to do is make vaccines for resource-poor settings. It never occurred to us to do anything differently.”


CONTRIBUTOR

John Bachtell
John Bachtell

John Bachtell is president of Long View Publishing Co., the publisher of People's World. He served as national chair of the Communist Party USA from 2014 to 2019. He is active in electoral, labor, environmental, and social justice struggles. He grew up in Ohio, Pittsburgh, and Albuquerque and attended Antioch College. He currently lives in Chicago where he is an avid swimmer, cyclist, runner, and dabbler in guitar and occasional singer in a community chorus.

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