What makes new COVID vaccine from US cheap, easy to make

The Corbevax, developed by Texas researchers and produced by Indian pharma firm Biological E, uses conventional tech, is patent free, and comes out of non-profit funding

Dr Maria Elena Bottazzi and Dr Peter Hotez from the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine, have used conventional vaccine technology to develop Corbevax. Pic: Twitter

At a time when vaccine inequality is being blamed for the outbreak of the Omicron variant of COVID, a team of US researchers has come up with a low-cost, easy-to-produce vaccine that may be universally accessible. What is even more heartening is that Dr Maria Elena Bottazzi and Dr Peter Hotez, who led the team of researchers, have bypassed the patent curbs that pharmaceutical majors typically have in place, rendering critical drugs and vaccines too expensive for poor nations.

Hotez and Bottazzi, from the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine, have used conventional vaccine technology which can be deployed rapidly. The duo had developed vaccine prototypes for the SARS and MERS viruses since 2011, and has now reconstructed it to create Corbevax to fight COVID. The ‘world’s Covid-19 vaccine’, as they term it, enjoys the advantages of easy and cheap production and distribution because it is based on a traditional technology.

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Hyderabad-based Biological E has already produced 150 million doses of the Corbevax, said media reports. It is set to produce 100 million doses a month. Corbevax has already been approved for emergency use in India, said an Al Jazeera report. Biological E is a producer of hepatitis B vaccines.


Traditional technology

Quoting Bottazzi, a Guardian report said over 60 other vaccines are also being developed using the same technology. Yet, theirs is said to be unique since they do not plan to claim a patent. The process involves the use of yeast, just like hepatitis B vaccines. Any vaccine manufacturer that produces “microbial-based protein like bacteria or yeast” can use that technology to make Corbevax.

Corbevax uses the recombinant protein sub-unit technology that places a piece of SARS-CoV-2’s spike protein in yeast cells. The yeast cells replicate the vital protein and this gets introduced in the immune system. This way, the human body is not required to do any major manipulation of the coding.

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While clinical trial data on the new vaccine are not out yet, Texas Children’s Hospital has witnessed over 90% efficacy against the original COVID strain, and over 80% efficacy against the Delta variant, said the report. The vaccine’s efficacy against Omicron is being tested currently.

Regular refrigeration

What makes Corbevax even more attractive is that it needs just standard refrigeration. The other COVID vaccines currently in use need highly cold storage facilities.

For funding their research, Bottazzi and Hotez banked on non-profit and philanthropic sources such as the Kleberg Foundation, the Dunn Foundation and the JPB Foundation. This is another reason the vaccine remains patent-free.

Till date, the world has produced about 10 billion COVID vaccine doses, of which nearly three-fourth has been consumed by rich countries. Several parts of the developing world remain poorly vaccinated, which is suspected to have led to the emergence of variants, and repeated waves of the pandemic. The mass production of Corbevax and other cheap vaccines offer hope in this regard.