Corbevax, a low-cost coronavirus vaccine created in Houston, could be a better weapon against COVID-19 by reaching the unvaccinated in poorer countries.

BY KAREN BROOKS HARPER

Two years ago, when a pair of Houston scientists first began crafting a cheap, easy-to-make COVID-19 vaccine, they had a tough time finding support for it at home in the U.S., a country that rewards expensive, flashy new tech.

They could have used help with their goal of combating the virus both locally and abroad, where it was morphing into more dangerous variants headed for U.S. shores.

But the team at the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine, led by Drs. Maria Elena Bottazzi and Peter Hotez, worked on their patent-free vaccine with donated money in relative obscurity, failing to garner much outside interest.

Then one thing finally broke through and spoke to the people who had been overlooking their open-science approach to the vaccine known by its first producer as Corbevax. It came without strings or a secret formula, making it a true humanitarian pursuit that could finally reach the unvaccinated corners of the developing world.

“Corbevax to beat inequity?” read a CNN News ticker beside a televised interview with the scientists last month.

Now, just weeks after their vaccine won emergency use authorization in India, international news agencies are lining up for interviews. Curious investors are reaching out to the scientists on social media from around the world. U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are pressuring President Joe Biden to step in and support the vaccine’s distribution abroad.

The vaccine is being praised by scientists, members of the public and the media as “the world’s COVID vaccine,” “the vaccine game changer” and “the way out of this global pandemic.”

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There’s even talk of a Nobel Peace Prize.

“You are providing sorely needed ethical & scientific leadership. Texas should be proud!” Ambassador Martin Kimani, Kenya’s permanent representative to the United Nations, wrote on Twitter in early January.

And all of this buzz before a single shot of Corbevax has gone into an arm outside of clinical trials.

“I think one of the reasons it’s been a bit viral is the fact that everybody’s been talking about equity, equity, equity and nobody does much of anything,” Bottazzi told The Texas Tribune. “And then all of a sudden they learn that we have this vaccine that has been open science, with no proprietary technology. And they’re saying, ‘Wait, where has this been?’”

The vaccine formula can be licensed by a vaccine producer in any low- or middle-income nation, which would then take ownership of it, produce it, name it and work with the government to get it to the people, Hotez said.

Corbevax, as it was dubbed by its Indian maker, was co-developed and manufactured by the biopharmaceutical company Biological E. Limited, headquartered in Hyderabad, India.

Doses are expected to be delivered to the Indian government starting next week for distribution to some half a billion people who are still unvaccinated in that country. Just over half the population of India is fully vaccinated, with another homegrown vaccine available there and a third recently authorized.

A halal version of the vaccine, for use in Islamic countries because it doesn’t contain animal-based ingredients, is in clinical trials in Indonesia.

The protein-based COVID-19 vaccine technology is also licensed to vaccine producers in Bangladesh, South Africa and Botswana, with potential deals also in the works for Taiwan and Vietnam.

Those five countries alone are home to a billion people who are not fully vaccinated.

“Hopefully, it will be game-changing for many countries,” Bottazzi said.

No patent means lower cost

Bottazzi and Hotez, both pioneers in the field of immunology, run Baylor’s National School of Tropical Medicine and have been developing coronavirus vaccines for more than a decade, including formulas for the SARS and MERS viruses.

Their vaccine uses the same recombinant protein technology already used for decades in the hepatitis B vaccine, a common childhood shot.

The vaccine technology has no intellectual property rights attached to it. That means the building blocks of the vaccine can be had for the price of a phone call. Once produced, the vaccine can be sold to governments for far less than any other vaccine currently on the market.

“Our intent was to make it available to millions of people in the world who would otherwise not have access to COVID vaccines,” said Hotez, dean of Baylor College of Medicine’s National School of Tropical Medicine.

The Indian government has secured a deal with Biological E to buy at least 300 million doses for less than $2 per dose. After that, Bio E has said it can make more than 1 million doses per month.

By comparison, the U.S. government is paying Pfizer about $20 per dose. Much of that is the cost of the intellectual property covered by the patent.https://apps.texastribune.org/features/2020/texas-coronavirus-cases-map/embeds/charts/percent-people-vaccinated/

The idea of open science, open access and open source medicine and technology, like the “patent pledge” by Tesla in 2014, is not new, but it’s gaining traction for its focus on equal access over profit. Its critics argue that it can dampen competition and innovation.

There have been attempts to exempt COVID-19 vaccines from intellectual property rights and patents to increase global access, amid debate over whether that would result in more equitable distribution.

But much of the praise for Corbevax and its Texas inventors seems to be their willingness — and that of Bio E and the investors — to forgo a large profit in favor of the more altruistic goal of better access and distribution of the vaccine.

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