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A scientist’s opinion: interview with Maria Elena Bottazzi on vaccines in low- and middle-income countries

Maria Elena Bottazzi interview: Doc holding vaccine vial close up

Elena Bottazzi profileMaria Elena Bottazzi, born in Italy, raised in Honduras, is a microbiologist and infectious disease expert at Baylor College of Medicine (Houston, United States). She and her colleague Peter Hotez led a team in India to develop the Covid-19 vaccine Corbevax, get it manufactured, and then give it away to low- and middle-income countries, patent-free.

Prof. Bottazzi, what type of vaccine is Corbevax?

Maria Elena Bottazzi: Corbevax is based on a well-known technology: recombinant proteins, similar to those used for vaccines such as hepatitis B and pertussis. Unlike the mRNA messenger or viral vector, where vaccines have to be processed in the body to produce proteins, we make the proteins in the laboratory. The procedure is vegan and synthetic.

What immune response did you receive in the tests?

Maria Elena Bottazzi: We had very similar results to the mRNA messenger vaccine. In the tests carried out by our Indian partner Biological E., we have seen that effectiveness is very high, more than 80% for delta and beta. Omicron is of course another type of problem and we will certainly not be able to maintain this effectiveness, but we are optimistic that it will continue to provide important protection. The urgency is now to use this vaccine in places where there is not one.

Have you decided not to cover your drug? How did you make this decision?

Maria Elena Bottazzi: For 20 years we have been working on the idea of giving support to those in need and trying to revolutionise a pharmaceutical model. We aim to use technology that is easy to access, cheap and produced locally, and we wanted to remove any barriers to access. We were already developing vaccines for diseases for the poor, the neglected. There is no commercial power that incentivises producers.

So a developing country that wants to produce your vaccine can do so?

Maria Elena Bottazzi: There are several options. They can read our research openly, which has all the information about processes for production even on a low scale: 10 litres, for example. The research contains useful data to create pilot products for phase 1, but more knowledge is needed to make a product on an industrial scale. Then they can contact us and we can support them. The cost of these vaccines is two or three dollars per dose. They are easy to use, have robust stability and can be stored for long periods of time.

Have you been in contact with any institutions?

Maria Elena Bottazzi: Yes, Indonesia, because our product is seen as halal. We are working in Bangladesh and with an African consortium working in Botswana. We have received requests from those who already have the necessary infrastructure and from those who want to learn. We need to create new generations of virologists. We have received limited public funds; the majority of our funding has been private investment from philanthropists and foundations. We have accomplished a sort of crowdfunding.

You and your colleague Peter Hotez have been proposed for the Nobel Peace Prize. Does this make you emotional?

Maria Elena Bottazzi: This is a beautiful emotion. One of the other names is Pope Francis, who thinks like us about helping the poor. We are very grateful.

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