Despite some truly important medical advances this year, the covid-19 pandemic is far from over, both in the U.S. and even more so in poorer countries with low vaccination rates. But there is hope on the immediate horizon. Cheap, easily stored, and effective covid-19 vaccines are set to be mass-produced and distributed around the world soon enough. That includes one particularly promising vaccine developed by Texas researchers that was just authorized in India this week.
On Tuesday, Indian health regulators granted an emergency use authorization to the Corbevax vaccine, created by scientists from the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine. The vaccine was further developed and tested in partnership with the Indian pharmaceutical company Biological E, which will handle the local production of the vaccine. Clinical trials have shown that Corbevax is safe and estimates indicate that it’s more than 90% effective against the original form of the coronavirus, as well as more than 80% effective against the Delta variant.
The researchers are billing their creation as the “world’s covid-19 vaccine.” Its underlying technology, which uses a piece of the coronavirus spike protein that’s grown from yeast cells, has long been used in vaccines, most notably the Hepatitis B vaccine. This design means it can be easily and cheaply scaled up, even in countries with limited resources. Importantly, it can be stored using standard refrigeration, which would allow for more widespread transportation and use than the mRNA vaccines that require special refrigeration.
Moreover, the vaccine technology was developed without patents, and the researchers plan to widely share their blueprints and/or co-develop the vaccine with any willing manufacturers and countries for no added financial gain. As a result, a mass-produced single dose is estimated to run about $1.50. In comparison, Pfizer and Moderna recently inked deals reportedly charging around $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 a month. The team has reportedly also shared its technology with manufacturers in Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Botswana.
“Our vaccine development program brings together the heart and passion of scientists from so many diverse backgrounds. We are privileged to be able to gift all our know-how and bring this vaccine to many in India and around the world,” Maria Elena Bottazzi, one of the vaccine’s lead developers and co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development, told Gizmodo.
There have been ongoing efforts to provide vaccines on the cheap to low and middle-income countries, most notably the COVAX program spearheaded by the World Health Organization. But COVAX has fallen far below expectations, having obtained and distributed less than half of the 2 billion doses it intended to procure by the end of 2021. Wealthier countries have also donated doses, and the U.S. seemingly pledged earlier this year that it supported waiving patents for existing vaccines like those developed by Pfizer and Moderna—likely an important step for broadening the distribution of these newer, more expensive, and more complex to produce vaccines. But talks to negotiate these waivers have stalled completely, and the U.S. has reportedly done little to actually push for them. Currently, only 58% of the world’s population has received at least one vaccine dose, while less than half are fully vaccinated—a disparity that’s even worse in many poorer countries.
Baylor’s vaccine was itself stifled by a lack of resources early on, with the team having failed to secure funding through the Operation Warp Speed initiative implemented last year in the U.S. to accelerate vaccine development. They were able to garner enough funding eventually, largely through charity, but it undoubtedly slowed 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 all is one that has had serious consequences—consequences that he hopes his team’s vaccine can now start to remedy.
“It’s so exciting to be able to make a difference in vaccinating the world,” Hotez told Gizmodo. “In addition to the obvious humanitarian drive, this is the only way to prevent future variants from emerging. Had we had the funds to do this sooner, perhaps Southern Africa would have been vaccinated and Omicron might never have emerged.”
There are of course still important questions about Cobrevax left to be answered. Notably, it’s not yet known how effective it will be against the Omicron variant, which has begun to overtake Delta as the dominant version of the virus. Omicron is concerning because its many mutations allow it to more easily infect people with some prior immunity created through vaccination or infection (on the plus side, this immunity appears to still blunt its severity). The team plans to have data on Omicron soon, however, and there is existing data suggesting that Cobrevax may be better at providing durable protection in general than some other vaccines. It’s possible that Cobrevax could also be used as a booster to other vaccines, and other data has shown booster shots do restore some protection against Omicron infection.
Corbevax isn’t the only vaccine that could become a boon to poorer countries. Just this week, Mexico became the latest to authorize the three-dose vaccine created by Cuba called Abdala. Abdala and another Cuban vaccine, Soberna 02, are similarly developed using long-established and cheap vaccine technology, and clinical trials have shown that the vaccines were over 90% effective against illness. Following a summer peak of the pandemic, Cuba’s covid-19 cases have plummeted as the vaccination rate has soared to over 90% with at least one dose. The country is still waiting for the WHO to decide whether it will approve its covid-19 vaccines, though, which will likely be needed to garner widespread use outside of the country. Should that happen, Cuba has promised to spread its technology to the rest of the world as well.