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.”
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby