A Houston vaccine team would like a U.S. distributor but for now focuses its efforts abroad to inoculate those in countries where COVID-19 variants surface more quickly.

BY KAREN BROOKS HARPER

The day before COVID-19 claimed its first Texas victim in 2020, Dr. Peter Hotez was a guest on the popular Austin-based podcast “The Drive.”

After 10 years of research into coronavirus vaccines, Hotez and his Houston team needed an infusion of cash to build on their past work and make a vaccine that could, as Hotez told listeners then, “rescue the world” from the deadly emerging coronavirus pandemic.

“You’d think that people would be pretty eager to support us to move this forward, but so far it hasn’t happened,” the Houston pediatrician and vaccine scientist told the host, Dr. Peter Attia, on March 14, 2020.

By the following week, major cities in Texas began to shut down to avoid widespread community outbreaks.

But Hotez’s plea worked. The donations started coming in support of efforts in the deadly new pandemic at the Baylor College of Medicine at the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, co-directed by Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi in Houston — both of whom are celebrated pioneers in the area of vaccines for neglected tropical diseases like chagas and schistosomiasis.

Among the gifts was a $1 million infusion of cash in May 2020 by the philanthropic arm of Texas-based Tito’s Handmade Vodka, whose director of global impact and research, Sarah Everett, was tuned in when Hotez asked for help in reviving their research.

“We decided that somebody should help restart that work immediately,” Everett said.

Now, nearly 18 months later, the Houston team’s vaccine, called Corbevax by its maker in India, is cheap, has no patent, can be made by many vaccine producers globally — including those in low- and middle-income countries — and is poised to receive approval for widespread global use.

The Indian government has promised the biopharmaceutical company Biological E Limited, which is making the vaccine in that country, that it will buy 300 million doses with the potential for more.

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

And later this year, the company hopes the vaccine will be endorsed by the World Health Organization for use globally, which could open the doors to quicker authorization in several countries that need it.

But here in the United States, this “truly Texas vaccine,” as its creators like to call it, has no home.

A Texas-style vaccine

The fact that the vaccine even exists can be traced to a lot of Texas money, including funds from The Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation and the M.D. Anderson Foundation. Several high-level and anonymous individual donors pitched in, as well as the JPB Foundation in New York.

Those donations funded a vaccine prototype with the initial doses mixed in the Houston lab and transferred to Biological E in India in May 2020. By November, BioE began clinical trials of the vaccine in India, where the delta variant was first identified and which has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the world. Total cost from creation to market was between $5 million and $7 million, Bottazzi said.

The U.S. government has yet to get on board. Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership created by the federal government to accelerate treatments and vaccines for COVID-19, spent none of its billions at the Houston lab.

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