Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Leave your feedback
It’s a tiny vial with big ambitions to help bring an end to the pandemic everywhere on earth. The developers of the so-called “vaccine for the world” hope what’s inside can ease the equity issues surrounding global covid vaccine distribution. John Yang has the story.
It is a tiny vial with big ambitions to help bring an end the pandemic everywhere on Earth.
The developers of the so-called vaccine for the world hope what's inside can ease the equity issues surrounding global COVID vaccine distribution.
John Yang has the story.
Some squeezed their eyes shut as they got their shot. Others turn their heads away.
These schoolchildren in Chennai, India, were among the first in the world to get a dose of a new low-cost COVID-19 vaccine called Corbevax manufactured by the Indian pharmaceutical company Biological E. It was developed half-a-world away in Houston, Texas, home to the world's largest medical hub, including Texas Children's Hospital at Baylor College of medicine.
That's where microbiologist Maria Elena Bottazzi and physician Peter Hotez hang their lab coats, heading up research at the National School of Tropical Medicine.
Dr. Peter Hotez, Baylor College of Medicine: If your house is on fire, and you can make one phone call, you don't call the patent attorney. You call the fire department. And we want to be the fire department for the world.
They have made their recipe for a COVID-19 vaccine, which uses a decades-old method, available to low- and middle-income countries at no cost.
Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi, Baylor College of Medicine: We give them a box, a drop box, and a Zoom link. And with that, you basically have access not only to all our reagents, consumables, information. And we get access to us and our team of scientists. And that's what really true diplomacy in vaccine development should look like.
Why is another vaccine necessary? In high-income countries, 71 percent of people have been vaccinated with at least one dose. In low-income countries, that number is 15 percent. And many of those poorer countries are in Africa, where government resources are scarce and access to vaccines has been limited.
It's a problem the head of the World Health Organization had foreseen.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General, World Health Organization:
As we began to see some countries striking bilateral deals with manufacturers, we warned that the poorest and most vulnerable would be trampled in the global stampede for vaccines. And that's exactly what has happened.
Dr. Peter Hotez:
I mean, I remember when that COVID-19 sequence came online.
The first person I called — I called, of course, is Maria Elena. We have worked together for 20 years. I said, Maria Elena, I think we can do this.
Hotez and Bottazzi put their lab to work, building on a decade of research on what's known as recombinant protein technology. It's what's used in the common childhood vaccine against hepatitis B.
It involves using yeast to copy a harmless piece of the coronavirus' very recognizable spike protein and create a vaccine that teaches the immune system to recognize and fight the virus.
Tell me more what we're seeing here.
Dr. Maria Elena Bottazzi:
So this is our brewing room.
Your brewing room.
And, by brewing, it's because, very honestly, when you use yeast, and we use fermentation of yeast, it's the same as if you were brewing beer. The yeast grow. And, instead, of course, of secreting alcohol, we actually make them secrete our protein of choice, which is our vaccine.
Is it finding the right recipe, as it were, that — for this brew to grow what you want it to grow?
In theory, it's relatively simple, again, very, very traditional. It's been around at least, what, four decades?
For making vaccines — for making vaccines, four decades.
But just Corbevax work? India's phase three clinical trial is ongoing at 18 sites across the country. And a clinical trial for children aged 5 to 18 is also under way.
And it looks like one of the advantages of this protein-based vaccine, it seems to hold up to the variants better than most other technologies.
Overall, I think that we have very robust immune responses.
Funding for their lab work didn't come easily. The U.S. government was more focused on new innovative technology that produces vaccine doses quickly.
They wanted to have a piece of mRNA that you could make in a few days, and with no real situational awareness to the fact that, when you have a brand-new technology from that, there's a learning curve before you go from zero to nine billion, which is what you needed for the world's people living in poverty in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
And so it was all about speed and innovation enough to vaccinate the North, North America, Western Europe and the U.K.
How did they eventually raise the money?
I think Texas is philanthropic like you would not believe. Foundations which we already had prior experience with for our other neglected disease vaccine portfolio, they came to the rescue.
Tito's Vodka came to us.
What was your reaction when you got the call from Tito's?
You're never surprised totally where the funding comes from. It comes from the most interesting sources. And being here in Texas made that possible.
Part of the vaccine equity problem lies in the wide variation in prices around the world and the lack of cost transparency.
This no-frills vaccine, which doesn't require the special handling that others do, is being manufactured in Hyderabad, India, at a cost of the Indian government of $1.90 a dose. And the company can make 100 million doses a month.
By contrast, a dose of Pfizer in the United States costs the government $19.50, a price that's expected to rise.
If you are a privileged member of society with money, you have access to health and you most likely can afford a medicine. But those who don't are really the ones who suffer.
I grew up in Honduras. And, growing up, you definitely see the impact that poor health has on a child to be able to grow as an economic, productive member of a society. So that's been my drive, to work in this space of a money-losing guaranteed biotechnology company, where, really, the — our revenues are how many people we can touch by bringing these technologies to those who really need it.
I really appreciate working with Dr. Bottazzi these last 20 years, because she's made me realize also how global health very much operates along a colonial — old colonial model, right, that only Japan, Western Europe and the U.S. and Canada really know how to do this stuff, Australia, and eventually it'll filter down.
It's not true. So we're very much adherents of this idea of decolonizing global health.
This gift to the world has also been approved in Botswana and Indonesia, with the potential to soon reach millions more of the unvaccinated.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Houston.
Watch the Full Episode
John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Lorna Baldwin is an Emmy and Peabody award winning producer at the PBS NewsHour. In her two decades at the NewsHour, Baldwin has crisscrossed the US reporting on issues ranging from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan to tsunami preparedness in the Pacific Northwest to the politics of poverty on the campaign trail in North Carolina. Farther afield, Baldwin reported on the problem of sea turtle nest poaching in Costa Rica, the distinctive architecture of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and world renowned landscape artist, Piet Oudolf.
Support Provided By:
Additional Support Provided By: