Doctor on developing global COVID-19 vaccine: ‘We got zero help from the U.S. government’

Dr. Peter Hotez, Co-Director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss the development of a new coronavirus vaccine, global vaccine inequity, and vaccine technology.

Video Transcript

EMILY MCCORMICK: Dr. Peter Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. Dr. Hotez, thank you so much for joining us, and congratulations on your nomination last week for the Nobel Peace Prize by Congresswoman Lizzie Fletcher for your work with Dr. Maria Bottazzi. I do want to ask about that work on the Corbevax vaccine. Tell us how this differs from the COVID-19 vaccines we've seen widely in the US from Pfizer, Moderna, and J&J.

PETER HOTEZ: Yeah, sure, Emily. It's an older technology. It's a recombinant protein vaccine that's made in yeast. And that means it's a vegan vaccine, number one-- no mammalian cells, no animal cells, no animal protein, human protein. People find that attractive. But also it's a technology that's been around a couple of decades. And it's similar to the yeast fermentation technology used to make the recombinant hepatitis B vaccine.

And the reason that's significant is the ability to make that vaccine at large scale is in place in multiple low and middle income countries, in Brazil, Argentina, in Bangladesh, in Vietnam, in Indonesia, in India, and the list goes on. So that if you want to make a global health vaccine locally and make billions of doses-- we need 9 billion doses for the world's low and middle income countries-- this is the one because it produces high levels of virus neutralizing antibody and T-cells.

No limit to the amount you can make, simple refrigeration. It's the lowest cost COVID-19 vaccine. The Corbevax, the one we licensed to India will be 145 rupees, which I had to look up. It means about $1.90 a dose, so it'll be the least expensive of the COVID vaccines. So it checks, really, a lot of the boxes that you would want for resource-poor settings for global health vaccines without sacrificing any of the quality in terms of its ability to protect against COVID. So we're very excited about it.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: And Dr. Hotez, to emphasize on that fact, you did license it for free to these companies. And I know that you've been working with one of the companies here, or at least, your partner in India is working with a company here to get that through the FDA process. But looking at what we have globally as the scene, right, we've seen other companies really falter when it comes to certain manufacturing issues. The surges over time have weighed in, supply chain issues.

And when it comes to the mRNA vaccines, while they do remain very popular globally, they don't necessarily suit the needs of some of the destinations where we still see largely unvaccinated or low vaccinated populations. How do you plan to overcome that? Or do you see the route to overcoming that so that we can get out of this pandemic?

PETER HOTEZ: Well, the problem, Anjalee, was the science policy makers never really understood the scale of what's required. If you've got a billion people on the African continent, a billion in the smaller, low income Southeast Asian countries, almost a billion in the Latin American countries, especially the low and middle income ones, that's 3 billion people. We're talking about 9 billion doses of vaccine.

And so you hear the president of the United States, President Biden a few weeks ago said-- you know, boasts that the US is going to donate 400 million doses of mRNA vaccines. Well, it's not a drop in the bucket, but it's 5% of what we need.

And so with our vaccine that, as you point out, we've licensed with no patent, no strings attached, or as I like to say, when your house is on fire, you don't call the patent attorney, you call the fire department, and we're the fire department. We've licensed it with no strings attached or patent to vaccine producers in India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and now Southern Africa and Botswana.

And [INAUDIBLE] is the furthest along. They have 250 million doses ready to go. They're now making 140 million doses a month. That's a billion doses. And that could really start having some impact, as I say, and at the lowest cost possible. So it's a privilege for us at our Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development to make that kind of impact.

The irony was we got zero help from the US government. And we got zero help from the G7 countries. We were able to do this through private philanthropy raised in modest amounts raised in Texas and also New York with the JPB Foundation. And that's what did it. We would have been a lot further ahead had we gotten more support. Who knows? Maybe the world could have been vaccinated by now. We never would have seen the Omicron variant. But hopefully now we can make up for lost time, and we're doing that.

BRAD SMITH: That certainly would have required the absence of politicization of this virus and the vaccination process as well, we do know. But in one of the points that you mentioned as well, it also comes down to, in the future, when companies do shift to a for-profit model for vaccine production and having them be as accessible and producing in the quantity that is necessary to continue to curb any type of variant that comes forward in the future, what does that reality look like? And ultimately, how can we ensure that people still have access and that it is affordable in the future?

PETER HOTEZ: Well, as they say, I think we've figured that out, at least for this virus. The problem is whenever you start with a brand new technology like mRNA or adenovirus or particle vaccines, there's a learning curve before you can go from 0 to 9 billion. And as any engineer will tell you, it doesn't matter whether it's mRNA or new technology widgets. It takes time to learn how to make it at scale. So I think moving forward, we need manufacturing hubs, and not only focused on mRNA because mRNA has weaknesses as well.

You show me a different type of vaccine technology, I'll tell you about its strengths and its weaknesses. So we need lots of shots on goal so we should have manufacturing hubs in place all over the world for mRNA, for adenovirus, for particle vaccines, for yeast fermentation recombinant protein technology, for Vesicular Stomatitis Virus, VSV technology. Remember that one? That was used to prevent Ebola in DR Congo. That was spectacularly successful.

So we have to have all of those in place. And we have to also give greater autonomy to the low and middle income countries. Right now, all of the so-called stringent regulators, called stringent by the World Health Organization, are in Canada, the US, the UK, Europe, Australia, and Japan. And so there's no low and middle income country stringent regulators. So it's discrimination, it's colonialism. We need to give that authority to excellent regulatory authorities in India and Brazil.

And while the multinational companies, a lot of people throw stones at them, they do important work. They're important for providing vaccines for the Gavi Alliance. I don't have a problem with the big pharma companies. But you do not want to be exclusively reliant on them because you see what you got. You've got this gross health disparity between the north and the south. So what we need to do is balance it out, support the multinational pharma companies, or they find a pretty good way to support themselves.

But also support the low and middle income country vaccine producers. Support non-profit product development partnerships based on academic medical centers like ours that are helping them in actually developing the vaccines and doing this without patent or strings attached. That's the way to do it. And we have to break out of this one dimensional that only the multinationals can do this because, one, it's not true. And two, it produced truly gross vaccine disparities and inequalities over the last two years.

ANJALEE KHEMLANI: Absolutely, and we've been keeping an eye on that. Dr. Hotez, I apologize. I did misspeak. You do not have a partner just yet in the US. And so I wondered if you could update us on that and whether or not you've received interest, especially after the attention around your vaccine. And then really quickly, moving forward from there, just where do you see after the news of the African hub producing and being able to reproduce Moderna's vaccine and the focus on that Global South and South Africa's role in there, if maybe not in time for this pandemic, but maybe they're on the path for the next pandemic, do you see that as potential?

PETER HOTEZ: Yeah, a couple of things. So, you know, I'm getting and my science co-partner, Dr. Bottazzi, she's getting as well, about a dozen emails every day, saying, hey, doc, I'm not going to take that mRNA vaccine, but I'll take your vaccine. Well, it's-- I mean, I think I know what they mean, our recombinant protein vaccine. And, you know, unfortunately, we do not have a path in the US.

We don't have an interested industry partner. We don't have any of the Operation Warp Speed or US government support to make that happen. So I just have to explain to them why you still need to go ahead and get your mRNA vaccine. Maybe that'll change in time. But I do think it could help a lot closing the vaccine hesitancy gap in the United States if we could have it made available.

In terms of Africa, we've also now licensed it to Immunity Bio, headed by Patrick Soon-Shion, who is based in Los Angeles, but has a commitment to do something for the African continent. And he's now building infrastructure in South Africa, as well as in Botswana. So we've licensed our vaccine to him so he can make it as well. So in time, I'd like to see a kind of a rich ecosystem built in Africa for producing vaccines of multiple different technologies like mRNA, recombinant proteins like ours.

And we have to do that because you never know which technology is going to work or not work for a given pathogen. I mean, the VSV technology was a spectacular success for Ebola. It did not hold up so far as we know with COVID-19. mRNA may be the inverse. Even though it's working this time for COVID-19, there's no guarantee it's going to be a good vaccine for the next pathogen to come around. So, again, each vaccine has strengths and weaknesses.

EMILY MCCORMICK: Dr. Peter Hotez is co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital and Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. Thank you so much again for your time. And thank you as well to our own Yahoo Finance's Anjalee Khemlani.