“Executives at Pfizer and Moderna should be more altruistic when calculating their profits” | Science

Honduran microbiologist María Elena Bottazzi, co-director of the Vaccine Development Center at Texas Children's Hospital (USA).
Honduran microbiologist María Elena Bottazzi, co-director of the Vaccine Development Center at Texas Children’s Hospital (USA).Texas Children’s Hospital

The polio virus paralyzed or killed hundreds of thousands of children each year. Amid worldwide applause, American virologist Jonas Salk announced in 1953 that his team had achieved the first vaccine against the disease. Asked on television who was the owner of the patent, Salk responded with one of the most famous phrases in the history of science: “Well, I would say people. There is no patent. Can the sun be patented? The current pandemic has been very different. The expected revenues of the American multinationals Pfizer and Moderna, plus the German BioNTech, from the sales of their vaccines against the coronavirus reached 62,000 million euros in 2021, according to a calculation of the newspaper Five days. The Honduran microbiologist María Elena Bottazzi, on the other hand, proposes a return to the Salk model. His team has developed a new covid vaccine and is offering it to the world free of patents. India has just authorized its emergency use.

Bottazzi co-directs the Vaccine Development Center at Texas Children’s Hospital and the Baylor School of Medicine, two private, non-profit institutions in Houston, USA. The researcher, born 56 years ago in the Italian city of Genoa and raised in Honduras, affirms that hers is “a vaccine for the world.” After India, Bottazzi hopes that it will soon be approved in other countries as well, such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Botswana. The injection, called Corbevax, is made with a process used for decades for the hepatitis B vaccine, so there are many manufacturers capable of making it for just over one euro per dose. The new drug is 90% effective against the original coronavirus, according to a statement from Texas Children’s Hospital, although details of the trials have not yet been released. “Now we are confirming the effectiveness against the omicron variant, but we believe that it will maintain good protection,” says Bottazzi.

Ask. You say that yours is “a vaccine for the world.” Weren’t Pfizer’s, Moderna’s, AstraZeneca’s and Janssen’s not for the world?

Answer. We say that it is for the world because there is the capacity to produce it on a sufficient scale to cover all the world’s need. The technology to produce it already exists in various parts of the world. If tomorrow Brazil wants to produce it, it already has the technology, the factories and the knowledge. Any manufacturer that can produce hepatitis B vaccines can produce this vaccine on a large scale. That is the concept of the vaccine for the world. What has been seen with the other vaccines is that, although the intention is that everyone can access them, there are limitations in terms of their large-scale manufacture, storage, intellectual property. There are many more limitations that are preventing the world from receiving or producing these vaccines.

P. Do you give up earning one euro with this vaccine?

R. Our technology is open. All processes are published, they are not patented.

P. The executives of Pfizer and Moderna have earned hundreds of millions of euros these two years. What do you think?

R. Multinationals have to answer to their investors, but, in the context of a global emergency, obviously you have to be a little more altruistic. They have made a great contribution by producing these vaccines, but it must be remembered that they have received huge public subsidies. In the US, the government’s Operation Warp Speed ​​contributed hundreds of millions to these companies. They should be more altruistic in calculating their profits and how to enable them to improve global public accessibility. In the end, we are the citizens who contribute with taxes so that the US Government gives subsidies to these companies. In the end it is public money and we are talking about an emergency due to a global pandemic.

P. You give up the intellectual property and there are no patents. The contrast with Pfizer or Moderna is brutal.

R. It is a model that we have worked with for the last 20 years. We are always trying to develop vaccines for neglected tropical diseases. We know that in the end the users are poor populations. You need to have this open source mindset in order to decolonize – don’t just make these vaccines in high-income countries. That they can be produced in the same countries where they are needed.

We must decolonize: do not produce these vaccines only in high-income countries

P. What does your vaccine contribute to the objective of protecting the world against covid?

R. I believe that in 2022 it will be able to close that inequality gap. The Indian company Biological E can produce 100 million doses per month. We speak of more than one billion vaccines annually. If you then add that the Biofarma company in Indonesia can produce another 100 million a month and that Incepta Pharmaceuticals in Bangladesh can produce another amount, it becomes a snowball effect. The authorization in India will give more confidence so that other manufacturers can accelerate the permits of the regulatory entities of their countries. The World Health Organization needs a different example, to be able to accelerate manufacturing using conventional platforms and to be able to reach the population that needs it.

P. The other co-director of its Vaccine Development Center, Peter Hotez, estimates that 9 billion more doses are needed to vaccinate the world.

R. That’s how it is. This vaccine can bridge that gap. In addition, countries, economically, cannot continue to buy high-cost vaccines. This vaccine can provide relief to countries that don’t even have funds to keep buying very expensive vaccines.

P. At first it was estimated that Moderna’s vaccine cost about 21 euros; that of Pfizer, 15 euros; and that of AstraZeneca, three euros. How much will yours cost?

R. In the range of what hepatitis B vaccines cost: between one and a half dollars and two dollars [alrededor de un euro y medio].

This vaccine can provide relief to countries that do not even have funds to continue buying very expensive vaccines

P. You have triple nationality – Honduran, Italian and American – and you want your vaccine to help complete vaccination on the American continent. Do you think it will be essential in America?

R. I believe it, yes, definitely. We need the last push. There are several vaccines that do not have as good a duration of immunity, especially in the context of newer variants. I believe that our vaccine will close that gap.

P. What other vaccines are you referring to?

R. Those based on inactivated viruses. There have been accessibility problems with the vaccine [rusa] Sputnik, for example. There are several countries that have chosen to receive a type of vaccination and I think that now they are seeing that they have to re-fill the inventory, because they have to continue vaccinating the population.

P. You say your vaccine is halal [apta para su uso en personas de religión islámica, al no incluir productos prohibidos, como los derivados del cerdo].

R. We started working with the Middle East and we saw that it is very important to them. We make sure not to use any reagents that are derived from animals. Everything is with synthetic or vegetable processes.

P. One of its funders is a vodka company.

R. Yes, in Texas there is a lot of philanthropy. One of the companies is called Tito’s Vodka. They have been very philanthropic during this pandemic. They gave us funds to do the research and development of these prototypes, along with many other family foundations and other entities. Tito’s Vodka gave us a million dollars and now he has just given us another amount to seek solutions towards a universal vaccine for the coronavirus.

Tito’s Vodka gave us a million dollars for research and development of these prototypes

P. What has been your budget for this vaccine?

R. In these 20 months, more or less about five million dollars [4,4 millones de euros] in our center. It is quite little.

P. How is it possible to make a vaccine with only five million?

R. The Indian company Biological E, our industrial partner, had its own mechanisms. It is a private family company and they put money from their own family and I imagine they also had funds from other organizations.

P. 44,000 people worldwide participated in the Pfizer clinical trial. Only 3,000 have participated in his. Why?

R. We are in a very different situation. People have already been infected or vaccinated with other vaccines. Now, clinical trials tend to be bridging studies, to see the correlates of protection [se estudian las defensas generadas por la vacuna y se deduce su eficacia en el mundo real]. The Biological E company did a superiority study, making an immunological comparison against the AstraZeneca vaccine.

P. There are people who have not been vaccinated because RNA vaccines sounded wrong to them as genetic manipulation and also there were private companies behind making a lot of money. You, who have nothing to do with Pfizer and are even the competition, what would you say to those people who do not know whether to get the Pfizer vaccine?

R. There is a lot of misinformation on social media. There are billions of people who have already been vaccinated with RNA technologies [Pfizer y Moderna] and adenovirus [AstraZeneca, Janssen, Sputnik]. Your security profile has looked very good. And the benefits of these vaccines are enormous. Those allegations of genetic manipulations are not true. There is a great benefit in being able to get vaccinated and avoid getting seriously ill or even dying.

P. So if someone can get vaccinated with Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca or Janssen, you recommend that they get vaccinated.

R. Absolutely.

P. What other vaccines have you developed that have really reached the arm of the people?

R. We have a program for the hookworm parasite, which is intestinal. That vaccine is already entering phase 2 [etapa de un ensayo clínico con centenares de personas]. We have done clinical studies in the United States, Brazil, and Gabon. They are obviously going at a snail’s pace. We have needed 10 or 15 years to get to this phase. We also have a vaccine against schistosomiasis [una enfermedad provocada por gusanos parásitos] in phase 2, in Uganda. And a very interesting program is that of Chagas disease [causada por un parásito en la sangre]. The intention is to start clinical trials next year.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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