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Peter Hotez on the Texas-made COVID vaccine that could help billions

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Dr. Peter Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi of Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine have developed a new COVID vaccine that could prove beneficial to lower resource countries. They said their Texas location was key to the project: There were lots of local philanthropic groups that agreed to fund their research.
Max Trautner/Texas Children's Hospital
Dr. Peter Hotez and Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi of Texas Children's Hospital and Baylor College of Medicine have developed a new COVID vaccine that could prove beneficial to lower resource countries. They said their Texas location was key to the project: There were lots of local philanthropic groups that agreed to fund their research.

Dr. Peter Hotez has become one of the faces of the pandemic. The bow-tied Texas scientist has been all over radio and television — and on this podcast, too — explaining viruses generally and COVID-19 specifically. Now Hotez and his partner, PhD scientist Maria Elena Bottazzi, have developed a vaccine that would be cheap and easy to produce.

Officials in India were eager to partner with the Texas team to develop an effective vaccine that could be mass produced, cheaply and easily. That is what we now know as CORBEVAX, which was recently approved for emergency use.

Hotez said it's patent-free, and the goal isn't to make money.

"We're trying to get the world vaccinated by having it produced locally all over the world," he said. "I always like to say when your house is on fire and you can only make one call, you don't call a lawyer. You call the fire department. So, we're the fire department — no strings attached."

When it became clear he was not going to get government funding to develop this vaccine, he reached out to other Texans for support.

"It was really tough. You know, at the beginning of the pandemic, we had to raise the money for it. We did it through Texas-based philanthropies... That's how we did it. It raised about $6, $7 million," Hotez said.

New York-based and national organizations also chipped in, as did smaller organizations.

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Bioscience and Medicine News Desk including UT Health San Antonio and Dr. Johnny and Joni Reyna, supporting prostate cancer research and early detection to save lives.

Cost efficiency was a huge priority for Hotez’s team. In order for low- and middle-income countries to be able to use it, they need to be able to afford it. They were able to ensure it would inexpensive by using older technology.

"It's cheap. This will probably be a $2 vaccine, as opposed to a much higher cost for the others and simple refrigeration. No freezer chain requirement," Hotez said.

CORBEVAX works in the same way as some others — like the Hepatitis B vaccine infants get.

Hotez explained that in mRNA vaccines — like Pfizer and Moderna — protection is waning in the face of variants more quickly than he expected. The world needs some additional tools in the old tool kit.

"Even I was surprised at how poorly the RNA vaccines held up... To my disappointment, it looks like against omicron, once you're a few months out from the from the booster, you're vulnerable again," he said. "We have to redouble our effort to stop new variants from emerging globally."

Several publications have called CORBEVAX a potential pandemic game changer, and Hotez hopes that's true.

With the emergency use authorization in place, the Indian government has ordered 300 million doses of CORBEVAX.

Biological E. Limited (BioE — Indian's largest vaccine manufacturer) has already produced 250 million doses and ultimately plans to produce more than 1 billion doses this year. Vaccine manufacturers in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Botswana also plan to produce their own versions of CORBEVAX which they will own, no strings attached.

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Bonnie Petrie can be reached at Bonnie@TPR.org and on Twitter at @kbonniepetrie