Global Economy

Texas Lone Rangers vs Covid-19

No praise is enough for Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi, the Texans who might yet rescue the world. They have done what big governments, big pharma and big man Bill Gates couldn’t for two long years – provide a low-cost vaccine against Covid-19.

Hotez and Bottazzi worked pretty much as lone rangers to give a lifeline to millions of forgotten folks in poor countries. India’s Biological E as one of their partners is producing 100 million doses of Corbevax a month. India approved Corbevax for emergency use in December 2021 and ordered 300 million doses. The regulatory process moved faster for obvious reasons.

Corbevax is patent-free, travels with ease and doesn’t require deep refrigeration. Best of all, it costs only about $1.50 (₹112) per dose. Compare that to a Pfizer or Moderna at $16 (₹1,190) or $20 (₹1,487) a pop, depending on the CEO’s mood and size of the deal. Neither wants to share the vaccine recipe. But Hotez and Bottazzi are freely sharing with no strings attached. They have already done so with companies in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Botswana. Indonesia is doing clinical trials for a ‘halal’ version for Islamic countries that don’t use animal-based ingredients.

For all the talk of vaccine equity, it took an entirely different cast of characters to do the right thing. If all goes well, Corbevax could be a game changer – good guys do win sometimes. It’s also the best example of US research and Indian manufacturing capacity joining hands to give life to diplomatic rhetoric.

It’s worth remembering that Hotez and Bottazzi got zero money from Operation Warp Speed or the mega-alliance of global health (busy)bodies or G7 or G20 countries. They still delivered thanks to local philanthropies in Texas. I loved that ‘Tito’s Handmade Vodka’ sent a million bucks when the company’s director for ‘global impact and research’ heard Hotez on a podcast.

Back in 2020, the duo was looking for funding to build on 10 years of work they had already done on a Sars vaccine and adapt it against Covid-19. You would think donors lined up at their door and cheered them on. No, that didn’t happen. They got no traction in Washington where Donald Trump was dishing out billions to companies to find a vaccine in time for the presidential election.

It was a race. Pfizer and Moderna were ahead using mRNA technology. If Hotez and Bottazzi had got even a fraction of support they needed, more of the world would be vaccinated by now. Was it a policy failure or a moral failure that a low-cost vaccine got no attention? You decide.

Their old-style vaccine didn’t have the buzz of mRNA vaccines. The focus was on ‘innovation’ while the duo was working with a tried-and-tested technology – using proteins from the virus to induce an immune response. The technology has been around for decades and it can survive sturdy conditions. Then came the trials. A study in India with 3,000 volunteers found Corbevax to be 90% effective against the original virus and 80% against the Delta variant.

It’s true that Corbevax can’t be modified as quickly as mRNA vaccines when new variants emerge. But new variants seem to emerge in unvaccinated populations as Delta did in India and Omicron in South Africa. The fully vaccinated and boosted are just a plane flight away from the next variant, and this is what governments need to understand. The last two years have shown that immunising only your population doesn’t work.

Hotez is right when he says it’s short-sighted to rely solely on big pharma. He talks about helping the global South like he means it, even using words like ‘de-colonising’ the decision-making process. ‘We are not trying to make money. We just want to see people get vaccinated.’ How quaint is that?

Finding new pathways for India and the US in the health sector is important in these Covid times. It’s also strategic. Ambassador Taranjit Sandhu has worked to increase collaboration and pushed New Delhi to act faster on approvals. He talked to Hotez and Bottazzi this week about distributing Corbevax to Africa and Latin America.

Biological E plans to make a billion doses by the end of 2022 – a good number, but billions more are needed. Only 51% of the world is fully vaccinated with Africa showing the lowest rate at 14%. Hotez called Indian vaccine manufacturers a ‘gift to the world’. Now let’s send the gift to as many people as possible.


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