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This new, low-cost COVID-19 vaccine could be a game changer for low-income countries


Let's stay with the pandemic and the calamitous rise of the omicron variant. It is a painful reminder that until the entire world is vaccinated, new, potentially dangerous variants of COVID-19 are likely to emerge, and they can emerge anywhere and spread everywhere. Supply and cost have been barriers to getting vaccines to many parts of the world, but NPR's Joe Palca has this story about a new COVID vaccine that could ease both those problems.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: The vaccine is called Corbevax. It was developed by two medical researchers at the Texas Children's Center for Vaccine Development and Baylor College of Medicine.

MARIA ELENA BOTTAZZI: My name is Maria Elena Bottazzi.

PETER HOTEZ: I'm Peter Hotez.

PALCA: Hotez and Bottazzi have been working together on vaccines for decades, especially vaccines for diseases that affect poorer countries. When the SARS outbreak occurred in 2003, the pair actually made a vaccine against the coronavirus that caused that disease, although, when that virus disappeared a year later, so did the need for a vaccine.

When the COVID-19 coronavirus showed up, Bottazzi and Hotez figured they could dust off their old technology and modify it for use in the current outbreak. Hotez says Washington wasn't all that interested.

HOTEZ: People were so fixated on innovation that nobody thought, hey, maybe we could use a low-cost, durable, easy-breezy vaccine that we can vaccinate the whole world.

BOTTAZZI: We really honestly couldn't get any traction in the U.S., but our mission is always to enable technologies for low and middle-income country production and use.

PALCA: So they raised money from private philanthropies to modify their SARS vaccine to create Corbevax. Hotez says unlike the mRNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna and the viral vector vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, the tools for making Corbevax are tried and true.

HOTEZ: It's the same technologies that were common in hepatitis B vaccine. That's been around for four decades.

PALCA: So they were relatively certain Corbevax would be safe and effective.

HOTEZ: And it's cheap. It's, you know, a dollar, a dollar-fifty a dose. You're not going to get less expensive than that.

PALCA: Hotez and Bottazzi's faith seems to be justified. The vaccine has now received emergency use authorization from regulators in India. In clinical studies, it was shown to be 90% effective in preventing disease caused by the original COVID strain and 80% against the delta variant. It's still being tested against omicron.

An Indian vaccine manufacturer called Biological E is now making the vaccine. The company says it's producing 100 million doses per month and has already sold 300 million doses to the Indian government. But Keith Martin thinks that's just the start because Hotez and Bottazzi plan to license their technology to all comers. Martin is with the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Washington, D.C.

KEITH MARTIN: Corbevax is a game-changer. It's going to enable countries around the world, particularly low-income countries, to be able to produce these vaccines and distribute them in a way that is going to be affordable and effective and safe.

PALCA: One drawback to the Corbevax technology - it would likely take months to make a new vaccine in response to a new variant. Modifying an RNA vaccine is faster. But Prashant Yadav says you have to make tradeoffs. Yadav is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington D.C.

PRASHANT YADAV: Something which can be adapted the fastest versus something which can be adapted relatively quickly but then, more importantly, can be manufactured at a large global capacity and at a cost of production which is much lower.

PALCA: Of course, the ideal vaccine would have both qualities, and Peter Hotez is trying to develop technologies that can do that.

HOTEZ: There's no issue with pushing innovation. I think that's one of the really positive features of the U.S. vaccination. The problem was it wasn't balanced with a portfolio of oldies but goodies.

PALCA: Oldies but goodies that may be good enough to make a meaningful dent in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF QUEEN'S "IN THE SPACE CAPSULE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.