When the COVID-19 pandemic began invading the world in late 2019, Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi set out to create a low-cost vaccine that would help inoculate populations in low- and middle-income countries. The scientists, with their prior experience of developing inexpensive vaccines for the world’s poor, had anticipated that the global rollout of Covid-19 jabs would be marked with several inequities. They wanted to create a patent-free vaccine to bridge this gap, but the U.S. government did not seem impressed, forcing the researchers to turn to private philanthropies for funds.
Hotez and Bottazzi, both scientists at the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development at Baylor College of Medicine, raised about $9 million in private funds. Meanwhile, the U.S. government’s contribution stood at $400,000.
“That was a very tough time early on in the pandemic, you know, trying to do the work and raise the money for it at the same time,” says Hotez, who was nominated in February for a Nobel Peace Prize with Bottazzi for their COVID-19 vaccine. He adds that at the beginning of the pandemic, governments emphasized speed, innovation and rapidly immunizing populations in North America and Europe with little consideration for poorer countries. “We knew this [vaccine] was going to be the answer to global vaccine inequality, but I just wish the policymakers had felt the same,” says Hotez.
Over the past two years, the world has witnessed 488 million COVID-19 infections and over 61 million deaths. Over 11 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide; however, the global rollout of COVID-19 vaccines is marked with alarming socio-economic inequities. For instance, 72 percent of the population in high-income countries has received at least one dose of the vaccine, whereas the number stands at 15 percent in low-income countries.
This inequity is worsening vulnerabilities across the world, says Lawrence Young, a virologist and co-lead of the Warwick Health Global Research Priority at the UK-based University of Warwick. “As long as the virus continues to spread and replicate, particularly in populations who are under-vaccinated, it will throw up new variants and these will remain a continual threat even to those countries with high rates of vaccination,” says Young, “Therefore, it is in all our interests to ensure that vaccines are distributed equitably across the world.”
“When your house is on fire, you don't call the patent attorney,” says Hotez. “We wanted to be the fire department.”
The vaccine developed by Hotez and Bottazzi recently received emergency use authorisation in India, which plans to manufacture 100 million doses every month. Dubbed ‘Corbevax’ by its Indian maker, Biological E Limited, the vaccine is now being administered in India to children aged 12-14. The patent-free arrangement means that other low- and middle-income countries could also produce and distribute the vaccine locally.
“When your house is on fire, you don't call the patent attorney, you call the fire department,” says Hotez, commenting on the intellectual property rights waiver. “We wanted to be the fire department.”
Vaccine equity simply means that all people, irrespective of their location, should have equal access to vaccines. However, data suggests that the global COVID-19 vaccine rollout has favoured those in richer countries. For instance, high-income countries like the UAE, Portugal, Chile, Singapore, Australia, Malta, Hong Kong and Canada have partially vaccinated over 85 percent of their populations. This percentage in poorer countries, meanwhile, is abysmally low – 2.1 percent in Yemen, 4.6 in South Sudan, 5 in Cameroon, 9.9 in Burkina Faso, 10 in Nigeria, 12 in Somalia, 12 in Congo, 13 in Afghanistan and 21 in Ethiopia.
In late 2019, scientists Peter Hotez and Maria Elena Bottazzi set out to create a low-cost vaccine that would help inoculate populations in low- and middle-income countries. In February, they were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Texas Children's Hospital
The COVID-19 vaccination coverage is particularly low in African countries, and according to Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and co-director of African Local Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise, vaccine access and inequity remains a challenge in Africa. Madhi adds that a lack of vaccine access has affected the pandemic’s trajectory on the continent, but a majority of its people have now developed immunity through natural infection. “This has come at a high cost of loss of lives,” he says.
COVID-19 vaccines mean a significant financial burden for poorer countries, which spend an average of $41 per capita annually on health, while the average cost of every COVID-19 vaccine dose ranges between $2 and $40 in addition to a distribution cost of $3.70 per person for two doses. In December last year, the World Health Organisation (WHO) set a goal of immunizing 70 percent of the population of all countries by mid-2022. This, however, means that low-income countries would have to increase their health expenditure by an average of 56.6 percent to cover the cost, as opposed to 0.8 per cent in high-income countries.
Reflecting on the factors that have driven global inequity in COVID-19 vaccine distribution, Andrea Taylor, assistant director of programs at the Duke Global Health Innovation Center, says that wealthy nations took the risk of investing heavily in the development and scaling up of COVID-19 vaccines – at a time when there was little evidence to show that vaccines would work. This reserved a place for these nations at the front of the queue when doses started rolling off production lines. Lower-income countries, meanwhile, could not afford such investments.
“Now, however, global supply is not the issue,” says Taylor. “We are making plenty of doses to meet global need. The main problem is infrastructure to get the vaccine where it is most needed in a predictable and timely way and to ensure that countries have all the support they need to store, transport, and use the vaccine once it is received.”
Taufique Joarder, vice-chairperson of Bangladesh's Public Health Foundation, sees the need for more trials and data before Corbevax is made available to the general population.
In addition to global inequities in vaccination coverage, there are inequities within nations. Taufique Joarder, vice-chairperson of Bangladesh’s Public Health Foundation, points to the situation in his country, where vaccination coverage in rural and economically disadvantaged communities has suffered owing to weak vaccine-promotion initiatives and the difficulty many people face in registering online for jabs.
Joarder also cites the example of the COVID-19 immunization drive for children aged 12 years and above. “[Children] are given the Pfizer vaccine, which requires an ultralow temperature for storage. This is almost impossible to administer in many parts of the country, especially the rural areas. So, a large proportion of the children are being left out of vaccination,” says Joarder, adding that Corbevax, which is cheaper and requires regular temperature refrigeration “can be an excellent alternative to Pfizer for vaccinating rural children.”
Corbevax vs. mRNA Vaccines
As opposed to most other COVID-19 vaccines, which use the new Messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine technology, Corbevax is an “old school” vaccine, says Hotez. The vaccine is made through microbial fermentation in yeast, similar to the process used to produce the recombinant hepatitis B vaccine, which has been administered to children in several countries for decades. Hence, says Hotez, the technology to produce Corbevax at large scales is already in place in countries like Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Argentina, among many others.
“So if you want to rapidly develop and produce and empower low- and middle-income countries, this is the technology to do it,” he says.
“Global access to high-quality vaccines will require serious investment in other types of COVID-19 vaccines," says Andrea Taylor.
The COVID-19 vaccines created by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna marked the first time that mRNA vaccine technology was approved for use. However, scientists like Young feel that there is “a need to be pragmatic and not seduced by new technologies when older, tried and tested approaches can also be effective.” Taylor, meanwhile, says that although mRNA vaccines have dominated the COVID-19 vaccine market in the U.S., “there is no clear grounding for this preference in the data we have so far.” She adds that there is also growing evidence that the immunity from these shots may not hold up as well over time as that of vaccines using different platforms.
“The mRNA vaccines are well suited to wealthy countries with sufficient ultra-cold storage and transportation infrastructure, but these vaccines are divas and do not travel well in the rest of the world,” says Taylor. “Global access to high-quality vaccines will require serious investment in other types of COVID-19 vaccines, such as the protein subunit platform used by Novavax and Corbevax. These require only standard refrigeration, can be manufactured using existing facilities all over the world, and are easy to transport.”
Joarder adds that Corbevax is cheaper due to the developers’ waived intellectual rights. It could also be used as a booster vaccine in Bangladesh, where only five per cent of the population has currently received booster doses. “If this vaccine is proved effective for heterologous boosting, [meaning] it works well and is well tolerated as a booster with other vaccines that are available in Bangladesh, this can be useful,” says Joarder.
According to Hotez, Corbevax can play several important roles - as a standalone adult or paediatric vaccine, and as a booster for other vaccines. Studies are underway to determine Corbevax’s effectiveness in these regards, he says.
Need for More Data
Biological E conducted two clinical trials involving 3000 subjects in India, and found Corbevax to be “safe and immunogenic,” with 90 percent effectiveness in preventing symptomatic infections from the original strain of COVID-19 and over 80 percent effectiveness against the Delta variant. The vaccine is currently in use in India, and according to Hotez, it’s in the pipeline at different stages in Indonesia, Bangladesh and Botswana.
However, Corbevax is yet to receive emergency use approval from the WHO. Experts such as Joarder see the need for more trials and data before it is made available to the general population. He says that while the WHO’s emergency approval is essential for global scale-up of the vaccine, we need data to determine age-stratified efficacy of the vaccine and whether it can be used for heterologous boosting with other vaccines. “According to the most recent data, the 100 percent circulating variant in Bangladesh is Omicron. We need to know how effective is Corbevax against the Omicron variant,” says Joarder.
Shabir Madhi, a vaccinologist at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg and co-director of the African Local Initiative for Vaccinology Expertise, says that a majority of people in Africa have now developed immunity through natural infection. “This has come at a high cost of loss of lives."
Others, meanwhile, believe that availing vaccines to poorer countries is not enough to resolve the inequity. Young, the Warwick virologist, says that the global vaccination rollout has also suffered from a degree of vaccine hesitancy, echoing similar observations by President Biden and Pfizer’s CEO. The problem can be blamed on poor communication about the benefits of vaccination. “The Corbevax vaccine [helps with the issues of] patent protection, vaccine storage and distribution, but governments need to ensure that their people are clearly informed.” Notably, however, some research has found higher vaccine willingness in lower-income countries than in the U.S.
Young also emphasized the importance of establishing local vaccination stations to improve access. For some countries, meanwhile, it may be too late. Speaking about the African continent, Madhi says that Corbevax has arrived following the peak of the crisis and won’t reverse the suffering and death that has transpired because of vaccine hoarding by high-income countries.
“The same goes for all the sudden donations from countries such as France - pretty much of little to no value when the pandemic is at its tail end,” says Madhi. “This, unfortunately, is a repeat of the swine flu pandemic in 2009, when vaccines only became available to Africa after the pandemic had very much subsided.”
Lori Tipton's life was a cascade of trauma that even a soap opera would not dare inflict upon a character: a mentally unstable family; a brother who died of a drug overdose; the shocking discovery of the bodies of two persons her mother had killed before turning the gun on herself; the devastation of Hurricane Katrina that savaged her hometown of New Orleans; being raped by someone she trusted; and having an abortion. She suffered from severe PTSD.
“My life was filled with anxiety and hypervigilance,” she says. “I was constantly afraid and had mood swings, panic attacks, insomnia, intrusive thoughts and suicidal ideation. I tried to take my life more than once.” She was fortunate to be able to access multiple mental health services, “And while at times some of these modalities would relieve the symptoms, nothing really lasted and nothing really address the core trauma.”
Then in 2018 Tipton enrolled in a clinical trial that combined intense sessions of psychotherapy with limited use of Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, or MDMA, a drug classified as a psychedelic and commonly known as ecstasy or Molly. The regimen was arduous; 1-2 hour preparation sessions, three sessions where MDMA was used, which lasted 6-8 hours, and lengthy sessions afterward to process and integrate the experiences. Two therapists were with her every moment of the three-month program that totaled more than 40 hours.
“It was clear to me that [the therapists] weren't going to heal me, that I was going to have to do the work for myself, but that they were there to completely support my process,” she says. “But the effects of MDMA were really undeniable for me. I felt embodied in a way that I hadn't in years. PTSD had robbed me of the ability to feel safe in my own body.”
Tipton doesn’t think the therapy completely cured her PTSD. “But when I completed the trial in 2018, I no longer qualified for the diagnosis, and I still don't qualify for the diagnosis today,” she told an April workshop on psychedelics as mental health treatment by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, or NASEM.
Rick Doblin has been a catalyst behind much of the contemporary research into psychedelics. Prior to the DEA clamp down, the Boston psychotherapist had seen that MDMA and other psychedelics could benefit some of his patients where other measures had failed. He immediately organized efforts to question the drug rescheduling but to little avail. In 1986, he created the nonprofit Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which slowly laid the scientific foundation for clinical trials, including the one that Tipton joined, using psychedelics to treat mental health conditions.
Now, only slowly, have researchers been able to explore the power of these drugs to treat a broad spectrum of severely debilitating mental health conditions, including trauma, depression, and PTSD, where other available treatments proved inadequate.
“Psychedelic psychotherapy is an attempt to go after the root causes of the problems with just a relatively few administrations, as contrasted to most of the psychiatric drugs used today that are mostly just reducing symptoms and are meant to be taken on a daily basis,” Doblin said in a 2019 TED Talk. Most of these drugs can have broad effect but “some are probably more effective than others for certain conditions,” he added in a recent interview with Leaps.org. Comparative head-to-head studies of psychedelic therapies simply have not been conducted.
Their mechanisms of action are poorly understood and can vary between drugs, but it is generally believed that psychedelics change the activity of neurons so that the brain processes information differently, says Katrin Preller, a neuropsychologist at the University of Zurich. A recent important study in Nature Medicine by Richard Daws and colleagues used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain and found that “functional networks became more functionally interconnected and flexible after psilocybin treatment…implying that psilocybin's antidepressant action may depend on a global increase in brain network integration.”
Rosalind Watts, a clinical investigator at the Imperial College in London, believes there is “an overestimation of the importance of the drug and an underestimation of the importance of the [therapeutic] context” in psychedelic research. “It is unethical to provide the drug without the other,” she says. Doblin notes that “psychotherapy outcomes research demonstrates that the therapeutic alliance between the therapist and the patients is the single most predictive factor of outcomes. [It is] trust and the sense of safety, the willingness to go into difficult spaces” that makes clinical breakthroughs possible with the drug.
Excitement and Challenges
Recurrent themes expressed at the NASEM workshop were exciting glimpses of the potential for psychedelics to treat mental health conditions combined with the challenges of realizing those potentials. A recent review paper found evidence that using psychedelics can help with treating a variety of common mental illnesses, but the paper could identify only 14 clinical trials of classic psychedelics published since 1991. Much of the reason is that the drugs are not patentable and so the pharmaceutical industry has no interest in investing in expensive clinical trials to bring them to market. MAPS has raised about $135 million over its 36-year history to conduct such research, says Doblin, the vast majority of it from individual donors and none from foundations.
The workshop participants’ views also were colored by the history of drug crackdowns and a fear that research might easily be shut down in the future. There was great concern that use of psychedelics should be confined to clinical trials with high safety and ethical standards, instead of doctors and patients experimenting on their own. “We need to get it right this time,” says Charles Grob, a psychiatrist at the UCLA School of Medicine. But restricting access to psychedelics will become even more difficult now that Oregon and several cities have acted to decriminalize possession and use of many of these drugs.
The experience with ketamine also troubled Grob. He is hoping to “mitigate the rush of rapid commercialization” that occurred with that drug. Ketamine technically is not a psychedelic though it does share some of their potentially euphoric properties. In 2019, soon after the FDA approved a form of ketamine with a limited label indication to treat depression, for profit clinics sprang up promoting off label use of the drug for psychiatric conditions where there was little clinical evidence of efficacy. He fears the same thing will happen when true psychedelics are made available.
If these therapies are approved, access to them is likely to be a problem. The drugs themselves are cheap but the accompanying therapy is not, and there is a shortage of trained psychotherapists. Mental health services often are not adequately covered by health insurance, while the poor and people of color suffer additional burdens of inadequate access. Doblin is committed to health care equity by training additional providers and by investigating whether some of the preparatory and integration sessions might be handled in a group setting. He says it is important that the legal aspects of psychedelics also be addressed so that patients “don't have to go underground” in order to receive this care.
As a type 2 diabetic, Michael Snyder has long been interested in how blood sugar levels vary from one person to another in response to the same food, and whether a more personalized approach to nutrition could help tackle the rapidly cascading levels of diabetes and obesity in much of the western world.
Eight years ago, Snyder, who directs the Center for Genomics and Personalized Medicine at Stanford University, decided to put his theories to the test. In the 2000s continuous glucose monitoring, or CGM, had begun to revolutionize the lives of diabetics, both type 1 and type 2. Using spherical sensors which sit on the upper arm or abdomen – with tiny wires that pierce the skin – the technology allowed patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
It gave Snyder an idea for his research at Stanford. Applying the same technology to a group of apparently healthy people, and looking for ‘spikes’ or sudden surges in blood sugar known as hyperglycemia, could provide a means of observing how their bodies reacted to an array of foods.
“We discovered that different foods spike people differently,” he says. “Some people spike to pasta, others to bread, others to bananas, and so on. It’s very personalized and our feeling was that building programs around these devices could be extremely powerful for better managing people’s glucose.”
Unbeknown to Snyder at the time, thousands of miles away, a group of Israeli scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science were doing exactly the same experiments. In 2015, they published a landmark paper which used CGM to track the blood sugar levels of 800 people over several days, showing that the biological response to identical foods can vary wildly. Like Snyder, they theorized that giving people a greater understanding of their own glucose responses, so they spend more time in the normal range, may reduce the prevalence of type 2 diabetes.
The commercial potential of such apps is clear, but the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
“At the moment 33 percent of the U.S. population is pre-diabetic, and 70 percent of those pre-diabetics will become diabetic,” says Snyder. “Those numbers are going up, so it’s pretty clear we need to do something about it.”
Fast forward to 2022,and both teams have converted their ideas into subscription-based dietary apps which use artificial intelligence to offer data-informed nutritional and lifestyle recommendations. Snyder’s spinoff, January AI, combines CGM information with heart rate, sleep, and activity data to advise on foods to avoid and the best times to exercise. DayTwo–a start-up which utilizes the findings of Weizmann Institute of Science–obtains microbiome information by sequencing stool samples, and combines this with blood glucose data to rate ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods for a particular person.
“CGMs can be used to devise personalized diets,” says Eran Elinav, an immunology professor and microbiota researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in addition to serving as a scientific consultant for DayTwo. “However, this process can be cumbersome. Therefore, in our lab we created an algorithm, based on data acquired from a big cohort of people, which can accurately predict post-meal glucose responses on a personal basis.”
The commercial potential of such apps is clear. DayTwo, who market their product to corporate employers and health insurers rather than individual consumers, recently raised $37 million in funding. But the underlying science continues to generate intriguing findings.
Last year, Elinav and colleagues published a study on 225 individuals with pre-diabetes which found that they achieved better blood sugar control when they followed a personalized diet based on DayTwo’s recommendations, compared to a Mediterranean diet. The journal Cell just released a new paper from Snyder’s group which shows that different types of fibre benefit people in different ways.
“The idea is you hear different fibres are good for you,” says Snyder. “But if you look at fibres they’re all over the map—it’s like saying all animals are the same. The responses are very individual. For a lot of people [a type of fibre called] arabinoxylan clearly reduced cholesterol while the fibre inulin had no effect. But in some people, it was the complete opposite.”
Eight years ago, Stanford's Michael Snyder began studying how continuous glucose monitors could be used by patients to gain real-time updates on their blood sugar levels, transmitted directly to their phone.
The Snyder Lab, Stanford Medicine
Because of studies like these, interest in precision nutrition approaches has exploded in recent years. In January, the National Institutes of Health announced that they are spending $170 million on a five year, multi-center initiative which aims to develop algorithms based on a whole range of data sources from blood sugar to sleep, exercise, stress, microbiome and even genomic information which can help predict which diets are most suitable for a particular individual.
“There's so many different factors which influence what you put into your mouth but also what happens to different types of nutrients and how that ultimately affects your health, which means you can’t have a one-size-fits-all set of nutritional guidelines for everyone,” says Bruce Y. Lee, professor of health policy and management at the City University of New York Graduate School of Public Health.
With the falling costs of genomic sequencing, other precision nutrition clinical trials are choosing to look at whether our genomes alone can yield key information about what our diets should look like, an emerging field of research known as nutrigenomics.
The ASPIRE-DNA clinical trial at Imperial College London is aiming to see whether particular genetic variants can be used to classify individuals into two groups, those who are more glucose sensitive to fat and those who are more sensitive to carbohydrates. By following a tailored diet based on these sensitivities, the trial aims to see whether it can prevent people with pre-diabetes from developing the disease.
But while much hope is riding on these trials, even precision nutrition advocates caution that the field remains in the very earliest of stages. Lars-Oliver Klotz, professor of nutrigenomics at Friedrich-Schiller-University in Jena, Germany, says that while the overall goal is to identify means of avoiding nutrition-related diseases, genomic data alone is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes.
“Genome data is rather simple to acquire these days as sequencing techniques have dramatically advanced in recent years,” he says. “However, the predictive value of just genome sequencing is too low in the case of obesity and prediabetes.”
Others say that while genomic data can yield useful information in terms of how different people metabolize different types of fat and specific nutrients such as B vitamins, there is a need for more research before it can be utilized in an algorithm for making dietary recommendations.
“I think it’s a little early,” says Eileen Gibney, a professor at University College Dublin. “We’ve identified a limited number of gene-nutrient interactions so far, but we need more randomized control trials of people with different genetic profiles on the same diet, to see whether they respond differently, and if that can be explained by their genetic differences.”
Some start-ups have already come unstuck for promising too much, or pushing recommendations which are not based on scientifically rigorous trials. The world of precision nutrition apps was dubbed a ‘Wild West’ by some commentators after the founders of uBiome – a start-up which offered nutritional recommendations based on information obtained from sequencing stool samples –were charged with fraud last year. The weight-loss app Noom, which was valued at $3.7 billion in May 2021, has been criticized on Twitter by a number of users who claimed that its recommendations have led to them developed eating disorders.
With precision nutrition apps marketing their technology at healthy individuals, question marks have also been raised about the value which can be gained through non-diabetics monitoring their blood sugar through CGM. While some small studies have found that wearing a CGM can make overweight or obese individuals more motivated to exercise, there is still a lack of conclusive evidence showing that this translates to improved health.
However, independent researchers remain intrigued by the technology, and say that the wealth of data generated through such apps could be used to help further stratify the different types of people who become at risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
“CGM not only enables a longer sampling time for capturing glucose levels, but will also capture lifestyle factors,” says Robert Wagner, a diabetes researcher at University Hospital Düsseldorf. “It is probable that it can be used to identify many clusters of prediabetic metabolism and predict the risk of diabetes and its complications, but maybe also specific cardiometabolic risk constellations. However, we still don’t know which forms of diabetes can be prevented by such approaches and how feasible and long-lasting such self-feedback dietary modifications are.”
Snyder himself has now been wearing a CGM for eight years, and he credits the insights it provides with helping him to manage his own diabetes. “My CGM still gives me novel insights into what foods and behaviors affect my glucose levels,” he says.
He is now looking to run clinical trials with his group at Stanford to see whether following a precision nutrition approach based on CGM and microbiome data, combined with other health information, can be used to reverse signs of pre-diabetes. If it proves successful, January AI may look to incorporate microbiome data in future.
“Ultimately, what I want to do is be able take people’s poop samples, maybe a blood draw, and say, ‘Alright, based on these parameters, this is what I think is going to spike you,’ and then have a CGM to test that out,” he says. “Getting very predictive about this, so right from the get go, you can have people better manage their health and then use the glucose monitor to help follow that.”