Travelers walk past a sign offering free Covid-19 vaccinations and booster shots at a pop-up clinic in the international arrivals hall of Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California on Dec. 22, 2021. Image: Frederic J. Brown/AFP (Getty Images )
Despite some really important medical progress This year, the Covid-19 pandemic is far from over, both in the US and in poorer countries with low vaccination coverage. But there is hope on the horizon. Cheap, easy-to-store and effective covid-19 vaccines will be mass-produced and distributed around the world soon enough. That includes a particularly promising vaccine developed by Texas researchers and approved in India this week.
On Tuesday, Indian health regulators promised an emergency use authorization for the Corbevax vaccine created by scientists at the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine. The vaccine was further developed and tested in collaboration with the Indian pharmaceutical company Biological E, which will take over the local production of the vaccine. Clinical studies have shown that Corbevax is safe and estimates indicate that it is over 90% effective against the original form of the coronavirus and over 80% against the Delta variant.“Besides the obvious humanitarian drive, this is the only way to prevent future variants from developing.”
The researchers are billing their creation as the ‘covid-19 vaccine in the world’. The underlying technology, which uses a piece of the coronavirus spike protein grown from yeast cells, has long been used in vaccines, most notably the hepatitis B vaccine. This design allows it to be scaled up easily and cheaply, even in countries with limited resources. Importantly, it can be stored using standard refrigeration, which would allow for more widespread transport and use than the mRNA vaccines that require special refrigeration.
In addition, the vaccine technology developed without patents, and the researchers plan to widely share their blueprints and/or co-develop the vaccine with all willing manufacturers and countries at no additional financial gain. As a result, a mass-produced single dose estimated to walk about $1.50. By comparison, Pfizer and Moderna recently signed deals reportedly charging about $25 per dose in Europe.
Biological E has reportedly already produced 150 million doses of Corbevax and should be able to produce 100 million doses per month. The team has also reportedly shared its technology with manufacturers in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Botswana.
“Our vaccine development program brings together the hearts and passions of scientists from so many different backgrounds. We are privileged to be able to donate all our know-how and bring this vaccine to many in India and around the world,” Maria Elena Bottazzi, one of the lead developers of the vaccine and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, told Gizmodo.
Continued efforts have been made to provide low-cost vaccines to low- and middle-income countries, especially the COVAX program led by the World Health Organization. But COVAX has fallen well below expectations, as it had obtained and distributed less than half of the 2 billion doses it wanted to buy by the end of 2021. Wealthier countries have also donated doses, and the US appears to have pledged earlier this year to support waiving patents for existing vaccines such as those developed by Pfizer and Moderna — likely an important step in broadening the distribution of these newer, more expensive and complex to produce vaccines. But talk to negotiate these exemptions have completely ground to a halt, and the US has reportedly little done to actually push them. Currently only 58% of the world’s population is has received at least one vaccine dose, while less than half have been fully vaccinated — a disparity even greater in many poorer countries.
Baylor’s vaccine itself was suppressed early on due to a lack of resources, with the team failing to secure funding through the Operation Warp Speed initiative implemented in the US last year to accelerate vaccine development. They were eventually able to raise sufficient funding, largely through charity, but it undoubtedly slowed down their timeline. According to Peter Hotez, co-developer and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor, the lack of focus on providing a vaccine for everyone has had serious consequences — consequences he hopes his team’s vaccine can now begin to remedy.
“It’s so exciting to be able to make a difference in vaccinating the world,” Hotez told Gizmodo. “Besides the obvious humanitarian drive, this is the only way to prevent future variants from developing. If we had the money to do this sooner, maybe Southern Africa would have been vaccinated and Omicron might never have emerged.”
Of course, there are still important questions about Cobrevax that need to be answered. In particular, it is not yet known how effective it will be against the Omicron variant, which is beginning to overtake Delta as the dominant version of the virus. Omicron is of concern because its many mutations make it easier to infect people with a previous immunity created by vaccination or infection (on the plus side, this immunity still seems to dampen its severity). However, the team plans to have data on Omicron soon, and there is existing data to indicate that Cobrevax is generally better at providing lasting protection than some other vaccines. It is possible that Cobrevax could also be used as a booster for other vaccines, and other data have shown that booster shots restore some protection against Omicron infection.
Corbevax is not the only vaccine that could become a boon for poorer countries. Only this week, Mexico became the latter to allow the three-dose vaccine created by Cuba, called Abdala. Abdala and another Cuban vaccine, Soberna 02, were similarly developed using long-established and low-cost vaccine technology, and clinical trials showed the vaccines were over 90% effective against disease. After a Summer Pandemic Peak, Cuba’s Covid-19 Cases Have Fallen plummeted as the vaccination rate has increased to over 90% with at least one dose. The country is still waiting for the WHO to decide whether to approve its Covid-19 vaccines, which will likely be necessary to gain widespread use outside the country. If that happens, Cuba has promised to spread its technology to the rest of the world.
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